New Aesthetic’s Pixelfuturism

Tullio Crali – Nose-diving on the City

Painting by the Futurist Tullio Crali: Nose-diving on the City, 1939

The future begins with a crash. In 1908 the novice driver Filippo Tommaso Marinetti looses control over his machine. A joyride in his open sports car comes to a grinding halt in a ditch near Milano. The accident was not his fault (of course), but that of two cyclists, who, with their petty muscle powered vehicles, had dared to come into the way of progress itself, embodied by the poet and his hundred mechanical horses. Marinetti is only slightly injured, but the sudden interruption of his speed-rush unfolds a catalytic process on his thinking and inspires him to write the Futurist Manifesto. On February 20, 1909, after a few hardly noticed earlier releases of the manifesto in Italy, Marinetti buys himself into the front page of Le Figaro, and thus finally reaches the necessary critical mass:

We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

In all together eleven articles, Marinetti declares war on the classical ideal of beauty and elevates war to become an ideal in its own right. With this media stunt, he single-handedly kickstarts one of the most influential avant-garde movements in art history. Initially, the companions suggested in the plural form of the Manifesto were only imaginary, but now that the engine is running, many comrades jump on the bandwagon. With their eyes wide open, the Futurists race towards Fascism and into their own demise in the battlefields of two World Wars. In the field of art, however, they were successful because they realised that the ongoing electrification, motorisation and acceleration of society was calling for a new aesthetic they could deliver.

Accidental New Aesthetic on Skype. Photo by Florian A. Schmidt

The Beauty of Digital Derailment
A century later, the crash is again the focal point of an awareness-raising process. Though this time, it is not about the acceleration of our body in the machine, but about the processing and transmitting of our data through the machine. Within only a few years, we got so accustomed to a pocket size package of satellite-empowered technology for communication and navigation, that we now already take it for granted. Only in the moment of the crash, we abruptly realise the improbability of digital communication. When a familiar face of a dialogue partner on Skype suddenly freezes into a pixelated, abstract mask, superimposed by high resolution interface elements, we catch a first glimpse of the New Aesthetic. The glitch has become an inspiration for artists and designers alike and with techniques such as datamoshing, the digital derailment is caused deliberately and exploited as a stylistic device.

The New Aesthetic is about creating awareness for the complex overlapping of information-layers that we encounter in the digital image and about finding ways to make the immateriality of the medium visible. Through the machines, we see the world with different eyes now, but just as with good typography, the interface remains virtually invisible. It has become a lens that we got so accustomed to that we neither perceive the tint of the glass nor the weight of the spectacles anymore. (With Google’s Project Glass on its way, this is hardly even a metaphor.) From time to time, we therefore need the glitch in the matrix to jolt us awake from our immersion and become aware of the absurdity of the human-machine interaction. This can be done by causing visual disturbances with artistic means, or simply by collecting weird and poetic examples of failed man-machine communication, such as the Screenshots of Despair.

Nothing to Undo

Instead of a Manifesto
The New Aesthetic is not an avant-garde movement in the classical sense, not a banner under which artists unite to fight side by side for the same cause. And yet, it is a strong current in contemporary art and design. The term was coined by the London-based publisher, designer and author James Bridle in spring 2011, but it rose to fame only a year later, with a little help from the influential science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. With a long and enthusiastic article on Wired, Sterling catapulted the New Aesthetic into the middle of the discourse on New Media. James Bridle is far from being a revenant of Marinetti — no sabre-rattling, no proclamations of absolute truths. He is however a very eloquent provocateur, liberally combining numerous hot topics in a thought-provoking, playful manner. Instead of a manifesto Bridle assembled an (at first small) collection of images in which he saw the emergence of a New Aesthetic. The original selection was accompanied by a small text in which Bridle displayed frustration about an outdated vision of the future. He wrote:

We’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jet packs, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood board for unknown products.

James Bridle
James Bridle using an application for facial recognition

The initial collection grew into an overabundant Tumblr blog, a digital equivalent of a wall full of newspaper clippings, as it is used in thriller-movies by investigators and perpetrators alike. The deeper order of such a collection becomes lucid for the audience only towards the end of the story, when all the points are connected and a clear shape finally emerges from the chaos. With the ongoing obsessive accumulation of circumstantial evidence, Bridle’s goal is to document a profound shift in the field of aesthetics as well as in our consciousness. And it looks like he is on to something there. As with Futurism, it is once again the realisation that the rapid technological change has led to a general shift in perception. Evidence for this turn can be found in the visual disciplines more easily than elsewhere, but the change is by no means limited to these. The result of Bridle’s effort is a kaleidoscope of overlapping, fractal shapes and ideas, a crystalline juxtaposition of aesthetics and political issues that connect themselves continuously into new patterns. What is being celebrated here, is not the race car and the dive bomber, not the clouds of smoke over the industrial smokestacks, but pixel, voxel, polygons, JPEG artefacts, poetic error messages, high-resolution satellite images, surveillance drones and the invisible data cloud that is constantly looming above our heads.

Voxel Street Art in New York, photo: Benjamin Norman
Voxel Street Art in New York, photo: Benjamin Norman

More Than Just Pixelnostalgia
The common denominator in this heterogenous mix is the spillover of the digital into the physical world. The most obvious indication for that is the increasing appearance of low-res pixelated surfaces outside the screen. Today, bitmap textures and graphics from 8bit computer games are in use on a wide range of fashionable accessories. They even conquer the third dimension in form of cubic voxels. The mosaic on the surface of the man-machine interface has left the computer to become the Pointillism of the early twenty-first century. Curiously enough, the small dots develop into an icon for the digitalisation at precisely the moment when high-resolution retina-displays shrink the actual pixel size below the threshold of perception. The same holds true for the polygonal wireframe structure of 3D renderings: It has become highly fashionable to parade a low poly mesh on physical objects such as shoes or handbags, while in new computer games, this underlying structure is practically not noticeable anymore.

Shoes by Andreia Chaves
Polygon shoes by designer Andreia Chaves

As with Polaroid photographs and Super 8 films, the low resolution style is already veiled in an aura of nostalgia. The entanglements between the digital and the physical world, however, go much deeper than the low fidelity surface. Today, almost every thing, every place and every person throws a digital shadow, or several, and not always intentionally. Therefore, the overlap, divergence and confusion between the virtual and the real has become an important topic for artists. A good example is the Berlin-based artist Aram Bartholl, who has been crossing the blurry border between the two realms for years. Bartholl transfers well known virtual objects and conventions, such as crates from the computer game Counter-Strike, marker pins from Google Maps, or the usernames that float above the player’s head in World of Warcraft, into the physical world. By doing so, he makes the mental balancing act experienceable that we perform daily when we are standing with one foot in the physical and with the other in the digital world. Bartholl’s works therefore oscillate between the familiar and the disturbing.

wow laguna by Aram Bartholl
“WoW” – public intervention by artist Aram Bartholl, 2006-2009

The Map and the Territory
Only a few years ago, it was common to imagine cyberspace as the diametral opposite to reality – an otherworldly haven for escapism. Today, this notion is outdated. The concept of alternate reality has transformed into that of augmented reality and the virtual and the real are now inseparably folded into each other. This paradigm shift becomes particularly evident in services like Google Earth and Street View. We now regularly navigate through our immediate physical surroundings with the help of the virtual bird’s eye view and we can easily explore an unfamiliar real world place by taking a stroll through its virtual representation. While walking down a street ‘in real life’, we glimpse on our devices and augment our environment with individually customisable infographic layers.

Dutch Landscapes by artist Mishka Henner (NATO Storage Annex Coevorden)

In the second phase of Futurism, proponents of Aeropittura painted the spectacular views of bomber pilots diving down on enemy cities. Today, artists such as the painter Jennifer Walton use Google Earth as a source for their landscape paintings. The Munich-based designer David Hanauer creates oriental style rugs in which the pattern is generated from Google’s satellite images of cities. The Dutch Landscapes by photographer Mishka Henner were amongst the first examples used by James Bridle to introduce his concept of the New Aesthetic. Henner’s work shows specific aerial views of the Netherlands on Google Earth, which are pixelated in a very characteristic, aesthetically pleasing way. The seemingly artistic image manipulation, however, was not done by Henner but by the Dutch government. Sites of national security interest had been officially scrambled before the imagery was released to Google. Last but not least, the astonishing work of the Canadian artist Jon Rafman are well worth looking at in this context, especially his ongoing series 9 Eyes. The title refers to the number of camera-lenses mounted on Google’s cars, and the series was indeed shot entirely with this device. On long virtual walks through Street View Rafman has captured moments of sheer wonder and beauty. Photographers like Henner and Rafman, who work without a camera, even without leaving the house, pose many hard questions regarding the authorship of their imagery. Similar questions occur around Apple’s recently introduced service Map with which the company tries to challenge Googles de-facto monopoly in that field. Especially the automatically generated 3D view of the world has become a bubbling spring of New Aesthetic imagery. Apple accidentally created a cornucopia of wonderfully nightmarish fantasy landscapes. Who is the author of images from this bizarrely distorted mirror world? The casual user, who in passing makes a screenshot? The curated blog that publishes these findings? Or the artist who professionally hunts for such visual expressions? Maybe it is Apple’s fallible algorithm, that is the true creator of this otherworldly aesthetic…

The Amazing Maps of iOS 6
The Amazing Maps of iOS 6

The Vision Machine
Our new image of the world, provided by companies such as Google and Apple, tries to come across as a seemingly neutral representation, recorded by impartial semi-autonomous machines, algorithmically stitched together from millions of single shots into a supposedly seamless whole. Herein, however, lies a political dimension of the digital image, which has already been addressed and analysed by philosopher Paul Virilio long before the New Aesthetic became a common phenomenon. In his book The Vision Machine, published in 1988, Virilio prominently cited the painter Paul Klee with the sentence: Now objects perceive me— and this could very well be the unofficial subtitle of the New Aesthetic. The fundamental change in the type of image creation that James Bridle describes is caused by a new breed of vision machines, a breed that operates increasingly autonomous. The new imagery is created without the necessity of having a human being on location, determining the field of view, pressing the shutter button, selecting, evaluating and arranging the resulting photos. All this is now done automatically. Today, with the help of ubiquitous surveillance cameras, facial recognition software and especially through military drones, the machine-aided eye can see into the most remote corners of the world – from Vegas to Waziristan – almost in real time. Even on Mars, a semi-autonomous vision machine named Curiosity is discovering its environment (that is, when it is not busy discovering parts of itself). The sheer volume of data, the complexity involved in its processing, and transmission will inevitably favour evermore autonomous vision machines. Humans will more and more have to rely their decision-making processes on suggestions made by algorithms and eventually hand over to the machine completely, especially in time-critical situations. Military drones such as the common models Reaper and Predator are already far more than just vision machines (their names leave no doubt about that), but just as their friendly cousin Curiosity, they struggle with the problem of lag, if only to a lesser extent. The distance-related delay in the transmission of instructions is so great that a true real-time control is not possible. That is why human pilots only take over from the auto-pilot on previously marked waypoints, to make decisions on the basis of imagery processed by the machine. (In the fast growing high-frequency trading, fully autonomous and intransparent algorithms are already moving vast amounts of money in nanoseconds.)

Street View snapshot from Detroit, with blurred Obama. Photo by Florian A. Schmidt
Street View snapshot from Detroit, with blurred Obama. Photo by Florian A. Schmidt

Control over the image, over who is watching what, is always a question of power. Google Street View’s algorithm automatically pixelates faces and license plates, but often enough also people on posters. As yet, the machine can’t distinguish with certainty between the different layers of reality and representation. But for humans, the task of manually blurring all the delicate bits in the millions of images would be impossible. It very much looks like we have to trust the machines to ensure our privacy. While some home owners attach huge QR codes to their houses to make them machine-readable from the sky, others, especially in Germany, demand from Google to digitally blur their houses in Street View, in order to render it unreadable to humans online. Hiding whole areas under a digital camouflage, however, as seen in the areal views of the Dutch Landscapes, remains a prerogative of governments. At the same time, we can observe a powerful democratisation of surveillance technology, not only with the omnipresent camera-phones: A private drone, complete with HD camera and GPS, now costs less than three-hundred pounds and can easily be controlled with a smart-phone. On the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, the “life-logging camera” Memoto just collected many times more capital then aimed for to start production. The brooch-like device will be worn on the body to constantly take high-resolution photos along with GPS data, one picture every thirty seconds. A fully automated wearable vision machine, that promises “a searchable and shareable photographic memory”. But the entrepreneurs behind Memoto have to be fast: Google Glass, the wearable computer in form of spectacles is about to leave its prototype phase and will already be sold to developers in spring 2013.

In short, the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of the algorithmically generated digital image. The protagonists of the New Aesthetic are a far cry from the Futurist’s glorification of war, but behind the stylish pixelated-kaleidoscope still hides a strong political dimension — the question of power over the panopticon of the constant machine-gaze and the role of algorithms for the design of the future.


* A German version of this article was pulished in the future-issue “Morgen” of froh! magazin, December 2012.

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