Stories from the New Aesthetic

In a recent evening at the New Museum, Aaron Straup Cope, Joanne McNeil and James Bridle spoke of their increasing awareness of, and developing attitudes about, the integration of technology and everyday life.

James Bridle is fond of a satellite photograph of the border between Namibia and South Africa — in the middle of a desert, alongside the Orange River, there are two blocks of shimmering green pixels. They're actually very tidy rectangular fields, but Bridle holds that, to today's eyes, its difficult to see this gridded pattern of monochrome shades as anything other than pixels.

This variety of paradox was at the center of "Stories From The New Aesthetic ," the penultimate discussion in a series put on by Rhizome , at the New Museum .

The three speakers — Aaron Straup Cope , of the Cooper-Hewitt; Joanne McNeil , editor of Rhizome; and Bridle, the writer who coined "the New Aesthetic " (but is quick to point out that he's not proud of the phrase) — spoke of their increasing awareness of, and developing attitudes about, the integration of technology and everyday life. Specifically, the way they begin to behave when they overlap or reflect each other.

The fact that satellite imagery and fairly precise GPS location is readily available for anyone with a new phone might be commonplace, but the scale of that realization, both in terms of its global ubiquity and the complexity of the necessary support system becomes dumbfounding in even a larger historical frame. Only a few decades ago, the nuclear-powered submarines of the two most heavily invested militaries the world has ever known could not target ballistic missiles acceptably because, on a basic level, the submarines couldn't even tell exactly where they were.

The now-continuous intersection between the physical world and its computer representations was the starting point for the three highly caffeinated imaginations on display at the New Museum. Cope, previously a geolocation engineer at Flickr, dilated on the echoes of reality and its schematic representation: reflections piling upon each other, and sets of overlapping data becoming increasingly rife with meaning — intended and otherwise. The complexity of possible interpretations led to a comparision of the eery oscillations of elevator statistical recordings and undersea whale calls. In such cases, the mapping of patterns against each other can often go awry. When this happens on the machine side, the feedback loops and glitches generated can seem to offer new worlds to human perception.
Top: A satellite photograph of the border between Namibia and South Africa — in the middle of a desert, alongside the Orange River, there are two blocks of shimmering green pixels. Photo by ALI/EO-1/NASA. Above: James Bridle's <em>Where The Fuck Was I?</em> project
Top: A satellite photograph of the border between Namibia and South Africa — in the middle of a desert, alongside the Orange River, there are two blocks of shimmering green pixels. Photo by ALI/EO-1/NASA. Above: James Bridle's Where The Fuck Was I? project
Bridle was struck by a list of the most productive editors on Wikipedia — presently the human race's most exhaustive single reference resource — in which the majority were, in fact, robots. Especially in the most frequently-used networked interfaces, the pattern-matching of machines in bits of software appears to intimately interpenetrate with our own forms of recognition. The slippage between the two can be powerfully disorienting as well: in Bridle's project Where The Fuck Was I? he unlocked his iPhone's logged GPS data, which had traced his location in a kind of geographical diary for the previous year. But, as he explained in the discussion, he noticed later that there were places logged that he couldn't have been — hovering above the Thames, perhaps — that were rather the product of phone's heuristic means of locating itself:
In <em>Where The Fuck Was I?</em>, James Bridle unlocked his iPhone's logged GPS data, which had traced his location in a kind of geographical diary for the previous year
In Where The Fuck Was I? , James Bridle unlocked his iPhone's logged GPS data, which had traced his location in a kind of geographical diary for the previous year
"It's finding itself according to a whole network that we can't really perceive. This is an atlas made by robots that is not just about physical space, but is about frequencies in the air and the vagaries of the GPS system. It's an entirely different way of seeing space."

Joanne McNeil approached the mysteries of robot vision from the opposite direction: she observed that Google Maps' anonymized faces are animated by their ambiguity, their strangeness heightened by their appearance in frozen, starkly exposed physical spaces. A similar kind of imposed narrative arose from Apple's recent map update, in which its warped topology gave birth to structures and locations that seem to melt into puddles or crawl in jagged zig-zags across a plane. While these errors can be looked at solely as hazards for navigation, McNeil argued they can also be seen as seams through which the narrative of the human "way of seeing" compares to a machine's.
That point of intersection — between representation and reality — is, after all, where art has always found meaning. Bridle stressed that, to truly understand that hall of mirrors as it exists today, we must search these systems for the keys to unlock them from the inside, before they will be comprehensible, first we must "find the right metaphors"
James Bridle's <em>Where The Fuck Was I?</em> project
James Bridle's Where The Fuck Was I? project
There is such a preponderance of the "beauty of glitches" in talk of the New Aesthetic that it's easy to start to think that's simply what the phrase refers to. But it seemed to me the range of examples is not so easily circumscribed. Similar projects like Jon Rafman's 9 Eyesa collection of wide-angle images snapped in Google Street View — tend to be driven by what Henri Cartier-Bresson called "decisive moments." On occasion they come from the distorions of space or color that affect the Google camera at critical angles, but mostly they are moments frozen in an instant of heightened significance: a nude standing by the shore, a band of wild horses glimpsed behind ancient gravestones. Their beauty arises almost entirely from the strictly human elements of their contents.

The term might seem to better suit Greg Allen's reprinting of "Wohlgemeynte Gedanken über den Dannemarks-Gesundbrunnen", in which a 2008 Google Books scan rendered an 18th-century treatise on "hydrologie" into impressively flowing and rippling typographical landscapes. Released as an eBook , Allen's piece navigates a turbulent space between printed matter and digital representation, from the accident as an artistic origin and the unknowable logic of a failing optical scanner. But again, its force derives from the reflexivity of its maker, and the object's pose within established codes of art-making and visual beauty.
From Jon Rafman's <em>9 Eyes</em> series, an image where Google Maps' anonymized faces are evident
From Jon Rafman's 9 Eyes series, an image where Google Maps' anonymized faces are evident
The talk surrounding The New Aesthetic urged some further level of comprehension or intermeshing of human and machine modes of understanding. (At times during the talk, I felt alone in my doubt about whether present-day machines can be said to "understand" in any sense that retains the word's meaning.) If the New Aesthetic is to metabolize the kinds of refraction and layering between codes and languages — or ways of seeing — it seemed to me its examples ought to emerge not from happy coincidence, but rather from the explicit, perhaps eery, echoes between different worlds.

What seemed to go unsaid, or perhaps was implicitly rejected, was the established complaint about the portal of representative technology, first made by philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, for whom representation and distancing were forms of impoverishing "the real." A new form of this disappointment was expressed by the anthropologist David Graeber in a recent essay for The Baffler :
Jon Rafman, <em>9 Eyes</em>
Jon Rafman, 9 Eyes
"The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies — largely, technologies of simulation (…) the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would (...) The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new."

The most profound suggestion behind all the various limbs of the New Aesthetic is that something new can be found not just in linear progress through "the real" (which perhaps might be better put as simply "the material"). It might be found, instead, in the strange undertones in the resonance between the way a representation is automatically generated and the way we have come to think of it in the complacency of our ordinary material existence.
Jon Rafman's <em>9 Eyes</em> series is a collection of wide-angle images snapped in Google Street View, which tend to be driven by what Henri Cartier-Bresson called "decisive moments"
Jon Rafman's 9 Eyes series is a collection of wide-angle images snapped in Google Street View, which tend to be driven by what Henri Cartier-Bresson called "decisive moments"
That point of intersection — between representation and reality — is, after all, where art has always found meaning. Bridle stressed that, to truly understand that hall of mirrors as it exists today, we must search these systems for the keys to unlock them from the inside, before they will be comprehensible, first we must "find the right metaphors." Though Theodor Adorno may well have been dismayed at these prospects, I think one of his instructions remains apt: "Teach the petrified forms how to dance by singing them their own song." Zachary Sachs (@CerealRecords)
Greg Allen's reprinting of <em>Wohlgemeynte Gedanken über den Dannemarks-Gesundbrunnen</em>, an 18th-century treatise on "hydrologie" transformed into impressively flowing and rippling typographical landscapes. Image via greg.com
Greg Allen's reprinting of Wohlgemeynte Gedanken über den Dannemarks-Gesundbrunnen , an 18th-century treatise on "hydrologie" transformed into impressively flowing and rippling typographical landscapes. Image via greg.com

Latest on Design

Latest on Domus

China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views