The New Aesthetic viral manifesto articulates the digital impetus in the shaping of the world, writes Rory Olcayto
The New Aesthetic is a term coined by Londoner James Bridle for a Tumblr blog he started lasted May collating images that chart ‘the network’s irruption into physical space’. That means surveillance camera footage, QR codes, low-res mobile video, and pixelated building facades. Anything, in fact, that looks like the space where virtual space and reality overlap. Here are some more things that are very New Aesthetic (or perhaps Smart Nouveau?): fabrics with 8 bit-style sprites printed or woven into them; oil paintings based on satellite map shots; a Hawk-Eye replay at Wimbledon.
Bridle is a designer with Silicon Roundabout firm The Really Interesting Group (RIG), which focuses on ‘the digital and the analogue interact - particularly the way digital stuff can be transformed into objects’. The RIG guys are smart. They fuse high and low-brow ideas with humour and style. One of their products is The Big Red Button, a shiny round plastic red button, which, if pressed, triggers the pressing of a spacebar on a nearby laptop. ‘Very useful for presentations and other digital shenanigans. On sale now!’ says RIG. It looks like a mushroom from 80s arcade classic Centipede.
Bridle’s blog, a manifesto of sorts, has struck a chord. Serious figures in digital design have twigged Bridle is on to something. To some, his modest website and the nascent culture it reports on and fosters is the first important visual arts movement of the 21st Century.
Architects, mired in a post-iconic depression, have yet to engage with the New Aesthetic, bar an excellent essay by FAT’s Sam Jacob. In a column for AA free sheet Commonplace, Jacob urges the movement to embrace the very nostalgia it has been accused of succumbing to. (Fairly in my view: the focus on pixels does suggest a certain Shoreditch-influenced retro-chic). But Jacob’s suggestion is a good one: ‘Real newness,’ he says, ‘might emerge out of radical nostalgia at the uncomfortable intersection of technology and history.’
Jacob’s essay is a response to Bruce Sterling’s An Essay on the New Aesthetic, published in April, a snarky, brain-tickling endorsement of Bridle’s idea, which rudely highlights its weak points. Here’s Stirling on the New Aesthetic’s fondness for retro 80s graphics: ‘Sentimental fluff for modern adults who grew up in front of 1980s game-console machines. Eight-bit graphics are pretty easy to carve out of styrofoam.
There’s a low barrier to entry in making sculpture from 8-bit, so that you can “rupture the interface between the digital and the physical”. However, 8-bit sculptures are a cute, backward-looking rupture.’ And here he is saying something nice: ‘The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowd-sourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.’
So others are giving new meaning to Bridle’s concept, which is how a network-inspired ‘manifesto’ should be. Architects, too, have a role to play. In fact, Bridle says the idea came to him while contemplating the pixelated facades of YRM’s Telehouse West data centre in East London. To Bridle, the bulky aluminium clad box is ‘…the skin of the network. This is what the network looks like, as made physical in the world. And there’s something incredibly powerful in that. There’s something that we haven’t yet figured out and we’re still playing with.’ Buffalo’s grain elevators, ‘the first fruits of the new age’, according to Corb, had the same effect on Modernists. But that was a hundred years ago. The New Aesthetic is your reminder that it’s time to move on.