Feature image by Nathaniel Flagg
What does the New Aesthetic look like outside of the ivory tower? Credit: SI Jones
“HP Computers are Racist” is a 2009 YouTube video in which two electronics store employees demonstrate how face recognition and video tracking technology on Hewlett-Packard computers works more accurately for people of whiter skin tones. “I think,” one of the employees remarks with biting accuracy, “my blackness is interfering with the computer’s ability to—to follow me.”
The company issued an apology after the clip went viral, suggesting that face-detection algorithms have more difficulty identifying the contrast that helps discern facial structure in low lighting. An ironic outcome of this corporate oversight is that while black people are more likely to be eyed as suspicious and tracked in real life (e.g. stop-and-frisk), the engineering of webcams for a presumptively white target audience renders people of color more invisible to technology.
The politics of surveillance culture—both state-sponsored and self-generated—are central to this thing that’s come to be known as the New Aesthetic, and whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve all been exposed to its central impulses and anxieties. It’s a trend in art that grapples with the “continuing cycle of humans reading machines reading humans reading humans,” the creative reaction to an internalized understanding of how we are continuously watched and recorded, whether it’s via Photo Booth, surveillance cameras, drones, or Instagram. We are now beginning to see ourselves through the screen and think of ourselves as perpetually watched beings.
Surveillance and “the gaze” Credit: Golan Levin
A little background: the debates surrounding NA began in March 2011 after James Bridle’s now-defunct tumblr incited its own SXSW panel, which in turn provoked attendee Bruce Sterling to publish a sprawling Wired essay on the subject where he defined the New Aesthetic as “an eruption of the digital into the physical” and “an attempt to understand not only the ways in which technology shapes the things we make, but the way we see and understand them.”
Deep-fried iPad. Credit: Henry Hargreaves
On May 30, Cluster editor Max Pearl and I attended a “Death Match” presented by Flux Factory in Brooklyn which posed art historian Molly Steenson, Pratt professor Carla Gannis, and the tech artists Greg Borenstein and Kyle McDonald—all key figures in NA’s eruption and dissection—against each other in an awkwardly twee, MTV-reminiscent debate. The heat and humidity of the space was only offset by the cheeky addition of booze, smoke machines, and cruel one-to-three minute time limits on how long each panelist could spout highbrow art theory.
Borenstein argued, optimistically, that tech intelligence has only just begun to creatively extricate itself from the past (his full opening statement and reflection on the event here). He continued by asserting that NA artists can only truly distinguish themselves if they can avoid becoming slogged down by the theoretical and philosophical debates that have plagued artists throughout the Postmodern era. But as I witnessed the panelists tip-toe around questions of identity, class, and the walled-off world of techno-culture that night, I begun to wonder what other debates NA artists and critics were excusing themselves from.
GTA IV characters sashay to Rick Astley. Credit: Tumblr
Marius Walz, an artist and critic who was in also in attendance has recently written that,“[a]t its core, the New Aesthetic is an ethnographic experiment documenting (often accidental) byproducts and consequences of digital technology, specifically effects of digital technology on physical/social/economic/political/personal space.” Very few NA artists are stepping up to the social/economic/political challenges he presents. This is a shame, because the ethnographic potential that the New Aesthetic presents can only be reached once we recognize that as our byproducts, our machines have been embedded with our own societal values.
A concluding slide from a PowerPoint presentation on NA. Credit: Marius Walz
A celebrated example of New Aesthetic art that satirizes the sociological underpinnings of face-detection algorithms is How to Hide from Machines/CV Dazzle, a “form of expressive interference” by Adam Harvey that exploits the tendency of these programs not to see the dark, dim, deformed, and obscure.
CV Dazzle in action. Credit: Adam Harvey
The chicken-vs.-egg question that CV Dazzle begs to answer is: Are computers racist or are the humans who advance computer technology racist?
The “Object-Oriented-Ontology” approach to technology favored by New Aesthetic theorists suggests that the answer is both. OOO is about our gaining empathy with our digital tech, and privileging the relationship that we have with these objects. By imparting agency on them, we can begin to imagine their inner lives and how they might relate to our condition. As Meg Jayanth writes, “phones know their location, algorithms read the news, the camera-mounted car is an organ of sight for the diffuse Google Street View body.” Some (arguably-Ellisonian) computers just don’t see black people.
“Larry” Croft exploring the e-jungle. Credit: Ulysses0302
It’s the increasing destabilization of traditional categories: alive vs. dead, agent vs. object, organic vs. technological that raises the most interesting questions for the New Aesthetic. Thoughts that our computers are observing us, and wonders about why are troubling. Outside of the documented discourse on NA, there are artists who are subverting and perverting these dichotomies without necessarily identifying themselves as within the “New Aesthetic.” They are also forcing us to confront the unique social realities of our digital evolution: as we teach computers how and when to perceive us, we must engage with the discomfort of publicly discussing skin tone, race, and the nanny-state; as we celebrate the wide-scale application of sex with machines, we need to fully internalize the fluidity of sexuality and gender.
Facebook giving face. Credit: Tumblr
The most vocal figure in Object-Oriented-Ontology is Ian Bogost, who describes his philosophy in his book Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to Be a Thing. His summary of OOO:
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, alienness is assumed to be a human-legible intersubjectivity…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.
Online communities both deliver and provide salvation from alienation. The New York Times recently published “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era,” equating poor youth of color spending time on the Internet as the new couch-potato behavior. But what they consider wasting time is what NA theorists consider empathizing with objects is what another person might consider rebellion is what someone else might consider having a social life. Trend pieces glorify images of tech-savvy yuppies daily, promoting the worth of taco truck app start-ups to the horror show that was the homeless-person wifi-hotspot experiment. “Urban” youth are portrayed as simple consumers: gamers, YouTube commenters, Tumblr-wielders. Meanwhile, in a far corner of the digital divide, anonymous hacker group SwaggSec has recently exposed security breaches in FoxConn, Warner Bros., China Telecom, and US Immigration Services, in the name of “based” evangelism, with rapper Lil B as their icon of dissidence. How well are we identifying transgression these days?
Illustration 9: Welcome to The Tragic Kingdom 2k12. Credit: Seychelle Allah
The critics at the NA panel would do better, perhaps, to look at the work of Seychelle Allah. His personal work, and as a part of the duo Space Slave Trade, is fantastically alien, even as it appeals to our collective childhood psyches in its references to Disney, anime, and the corporate logos that we’ve been exposed to our entire lives. Surreal and erotic, Space Slave Trade fittingly got its start after Allah got kicked off of Facebook for posting illicit images. In an interview with the Super Super, he professes “high speed isolation is a recurring theme” in his work. Through his motifs—consumerism, celebrity, pornographically-rendered bodies, magic, the ostracization of queers and people of color—he cloaks afro-futurism in the New Aesthetic’s technicolor dreamcoat.
Conversations about The New Aesthetic have unwittingly exposed the unacknowledged privileged attitudes of its white, art-school enthusiasts and detractors. For the most part, critics like those at the Flux Factory panel have failed to recognize Tumblr, in particular, as rich in collections of art, novelty, and fetish objects that challenge the proposed intersection of art, society, and culture that NA is thought to embody. Instead, current debates are formulating rigidly philosophical definitions of what its future will look like.
Especially as we’ve yet to figure out how fully we’ve implanted our devices with our fears and biases, most missing from the conversation is the acknowledgement of the drama that proliferates our networked culture. The weight of our self-generated reproductions spill from our psyches into reality messily. Art gives us an opportunity to address these strange, but familiar new offspring. Our tech is only capable of feeding us back lovingly processed versions of ourselves.