by Alan Ruić
James Bridle, in his talk Waving at the Machines, presented a plethora of images that, in his opinion, shared a connection — a certain digital origin. What internet forums later would, still tentatively, dub the New Aesthetic described an explosion of the digital into the ‘real’ world. While some of Bridle’s imagery consisted of bugs/errors which made evident the digital component in the imagery’s creation other images showed deliberate designs that utilized what could be called digital artifacts. Some of his examples, for instance, seem pixelated by design.
It should be pointed out that pixels are a very recent occurrence and a visitor from the past would probably not recognize them as such if s/he saw them in a design. Hence, the name New Aesthetic seems plausible as there is certainly something at hand which has not existed in the past, however relative the word ‘new’ might seem.
Furthermore, the New Aesthetic is bound to revert back the Old Aesthetic as pixelation and low polygon counts are removed from our daily experience by an ever faster technological development. At the moment this is written, there are displays whose pixel densities match the density of photo cells on the human retina, while massively detailed wireframes and constantly updated shaders mask the polygonal origin of 3D graphics. If we granted the machine a volition, we could say that it wants to please us by adapting to the human cultural layer of perception. It is donning a mask of human perception upon its machine face. In this case, the pixel dense displays and shaders serve a double purpose. Their actual job is to make our experience seem more real, more like everyday life, their figurative job is to hide the machine, make it invisible. Just like with a photograph, we are not looking at the machine anymore but at its content.
An issue that emerges with wanting to create something digital that is ‘just like everyday life’ becomes evident when we look at the marketing slogans of, what I would call, Post New Aesthetic devices. Apple, for instance, has dubbed its high density displays ‘Retina’ — a nod to the fact that their machines want to communicate their content on human terms. Apple claim that their screens match the pixel density of quality magazines printed on glossy paper.
Subsequently, by creating a Post New Aesthetic machine that masks its machineness sufficiently we revert back to the Old Aesthetic (i.e. the way the world looked before the digital). Reading an eBook/magazine on such a device you seem to get the impression of reading a book behind a pane of glass — which actually is the screen. You can even flick the pages with a swipe of your finger.
The same is true for 3D graphics. They are modeled onto the real world. In some instances we deal with real objects, such as sculptures or even people, which have been scanned into the computer. The very act of motion-capturing is an effort to scan the ‘fourth’ dimension into the computer.
So far I would say that the Old Aesthetic is approximated by the Post New Aesthetic. The Post New Aesthetic is a sufficiently perfect imitation of the ‘real’ world (i.e. the one outside the digital). It might be questionable whether a visitor from the future would understand, just like the visitor from the past, the meaning of deliberately pixelated objects for what they are. The New Aesthetic, then, might be the effort of documenting a stretch of time when the digital machine was visible.
Technical limitations in the past have created imagery which is obviously fake and computer generated. The machine has not been sophisticated enough to create photorealistic illusions behind the glass pane. Pixels were obvious because of their size. The same is true for polygons and textures. Latter seemed to be, due to the lack of shaders, an infinitely thin wallpaper glued onto those crude polygons. In post New Aesthetic imagery those polygons and pixels are still existent but masked to such degrees that the machine seems to communicate on human terms or ‘real’ world terms.
The machine (we are still granting volition) wants to communicate on human terms while the New Aesthetic seems to want to strip its mask, make it visible again — at least for the time being.
In conclusion, there are the Old Aesthetic and the Post New Aesthetic. The Post New Aesthetic is an approximation of the Old Aesthetic which, in turn, is the aesthetic of the ‘real’ world. The New Aesthetic, as a movement, seems to imitate the look that existed in early computers and game consoles before they approached the Post New Aesthetic look. Given that we can assume that graphics of digital devices will never become worse, we might consider the New Aesthetic movement as a try to hold on to this particular look of this particular, almost bygone, era. As we are on the verge of the Post New Aesthetic we might consider the New Aesthetic movement as a final celebration of the visibility of the digital. The movement seems to wave goodbye at the time when digital imagery was obviously digital and its look dictated by technical limitations.