James Bridle wrote a remarkable essay some years back called “The New Aesthetic.”
Should I summarize it? Probably not, but here goes:
Digital image making, capturing, image-based surveillance, panoptics, techniques of observation, image manipulation (purposeful and through faulty algorithms, etc.) produce a wide visual field that inserts itself before our eyeballs to such a significant degree that such imagery determines an aesthetic that is new. In fact, it’s so new that we should call it ‘new’ and catalog its characteristics, reflect on its implications for our occupancy within its Foucauldian episteme, understand its mechanics of circulation, and just, like..everywhere-ness. That all genuinely deserves deeper understanding and explication, which Bridle does expertly.
I may have gotten that wrong because I realize that’s more of a recollection vectored through what I want it to say in order to serve my purposes here and, pressed for time, I didn’t re-read it. So that’s more or less what came out from my now multi-year distance from that important work of his. I should also own up and say that it’s an essay that evoked a perfectly manageable bout of courteous professional jealousy from me to where I was excitedly awed by Bridle’s insights and timing. But that’s another topic.
Just the other day I thought back fondly to that moment when The New Aesthetic had its moment.
What prompted that reverie? Well, a good friend (we go back to, like..grade school) who is a remarkable professional photographer (another instance of my being professionally awed and productively jealous) named Marc Royce DM’d me on Instagram while I was out and about. This is what our exchange looked like, in part.
So, back story: for the last, oh — coming up on two years now — I’ve been purposely doing work in 3D visualization, graphics, modeling, and so forth.
About 20% because I’m generally a curious guy who derives an enormous amount of satisfaction from learning new things (doesn’t matter if it’s on the computer or crafting with paracord or involves welding equipment) and 80% because I’d rather go through the sometimes head-hurting but satisfying effort of learning something new than paying someone else to do it for me, and my other, other company needs this kind of work done, so I’d rather learn how to do it so at least I know what I would have someone do and can speak with some insight and modest experience on the work. (Reasonable exceptions for going through the trouble of learning a skill abound, including preparing taxes, cutting my own hair, intractable household plumbing problems possibly involving gas leaks, etcetera.)
As part of the learning trajectory of this domain, some of the coursework I do sends me on these wonderful tangents where I’ll do a series of “studies” to dig deeper into some little aspect of modeling, texturing, render configurations, lighting, etc. My “renderstation” is full of directories of these “studies”, each named according to the particular facet under investigation or that I may be exploring.
That up there might be one such “folder” hierarchy. There are piles of these folders. In each study I’m doing one thing — essentially exploring some arcane nuance..it might be tweaking one paramter-setting knob to see the way it materializes its results, as most of the knobs on these things are not at all well described. (Words have trouble capturing these things, especially when the main effect is visual affect.)
Occasionally, often out of a mix of humble pride mixed with a moment of shrugging-boredom, I’ll “post” something without much thought. And so I posted that image above as an Instagram Story — and, as you can see, Marc assumed quite good-naturedly (and perhaps jokingly) that it was an NFT.
What he heck does that even mean? Why does he say that about that weird apparatus and not about the post of, whatever — the skateboarding photograph I posted just before it? He definitely saw the skateboarding photograph because he ‘Liked’ it and Marc’s the kind of guy who will ‘Like’ anything I post even if he doesn’t because we have history and are friends and maybe that’s enough to like whatever your friend does, and even might make you ‘Like’ it despite yourself because what are friends for, otherwise? I mean, even if you wouldn’t like it from a stranger. Right?
Well, I suspect this is what happened here: Marc being a visual guy, saw through his experience matrix of the current wholesale exuberance around NFTs that this weird apparatus I posted had a certain aesthetic character that means it could very well be an NFT. It’s got the NFT Aesthetic in its visual DNA. Subsequently it would make sense for it to become a proper NFT if it wasn’t already, which means I should “mint it” (and actually make it an NFT rather than an image file on the renderstation) and potentially get a few cyber crypto shekels for my trouble.
What cracked me up — and its not the first time it’s happened, and it was more a nervous laughter than a derisive laughter — was how quickly the aesthetic of this 3D thing was readily identified as what might be called an “NFT Aesthetic”.
Eh? What’s that?
It’s pretty clear that the apparatus is something that was modeled in some CAD program of some description (in fact, the same one Beeple uses quite expertly, and I use quite inexpertly — imagine me wearing oven mitts while attempting to play a banjo.) There are characteristics of the NFT aesthetic representation that I’ll do a bad job right now of describing, but you probably get what I’m getting at.
Another relevant peculiarity follows.
A friend “minted” as an NFT some of their photographs. Street photography. Decent work, as far as it goes. When it was represented as an NFT? Nothing happened, in the transactional sense of things. The photographs just sit there on Opensea and to the best of my knowledge, they still sit there. Or a picture of them sit there. Or whatever it is. (What did happen is they got to go through the somewhat awkward experience of “minting”, and that’s good to do, to understand better all the fittings and joints and rituals and protocols and just — mishegoss of it all. Stick your head in the open jaws of the beast before anything else. Or, you know — try to do your own taxes or cut your own hair just once to gain a sense of insight into and respect for the required sensibilities to do such things. Note though that you should definitely leave gas leaks to the experts. Those of you poor souls with bald or nearly bald pates get a pass on the haircut thing. Having ones hair give up like that is best seen from the bright side, as like — well, a kind of tax credit of sorts. No more need to pay for having one’s hair cut by someone else. When you have a head of supple, luxuriously curly locks like my own, courtesty of my grandfather, the burden of locating and the expense of master tonsorial craftsmanship is quite heavy..quite heavy, indeed.)
Sometime after my friend minted their photographs, I noticed that they went back and added a time-dimension to the work so they became little looping something-or-anothers — animated GIFs or whatever. The time-dimensionality they added is a kind of “glitching” effect. Perhaps they ran the images through Adobe AfterEffects and applied some sort of, like..glitching effect plug-in onto the image or something.
What the heck is going on here? Maybe they thought that the aesthetic of an otherwise perfectly well-composed photograph wasn’t enough for the photograph to become an NFT? Does an NFT of a photograph need to be other than the photograph? Perhaps they thought that “glitching” effect would make the photographs more consistent with the NFT Aesthetic? More cyber? More “of” the episteme of computation and algorithms, some of which can be faulty and cause bits to get dropped and thus become ‘glitchy’?
Photographs aren’t cyber-y — not really, despite the fact that most of them are digital. NFTs I would suggest are more associated with rogue, barely understood algorithms that take forever to solve problems. Bad actors. Rebelious. Torn jeans and pierced nipple ‘gorithms. Mysterious Satoshi high-priest selfless revolutionaries. Punk. So, you know — glitch that thing. Fuck it up. NFTs should have an aesthetic consistent with, like..latter day cyberpunks, I guess? Why else would you take a perfectly fine photograph and then make it, you know — look like it was losing its mind slipping into a ketamine coma somewhere on the Azure Cloud?
(I’ve got nothing but love for this photographer and their work. And I truly admire and have learned something from them about this moment. So, this isn’t a dig against what they’re doing. They’re brave AF, and I bend a knee to brave creative souls.)
There’s something slightly icky to me when the aesthetic characteristics determines what gets made. Reminds me a bit about that art provocation you may recall where the artist analyzed what the median individual enjoyed in a painting and put all those things in the painting. What was that? Hold on..
Damnit. Can’t find it. It featured in Art Forum back when I used to get Art Forum. I know there was an artist who cynically did that. If you know who that is, let me know. But it wasn’t Bob Ross and it wasn’t Thomas Kinkade, but it looks like Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade both painted on the same canvas at the same time. Deer x2. Deer No. 1 lapping at a lake while Deer No. 2 looks directly at you with earnest, pleading eyeballs the size of billiard balls. Lake reflecting snow-capped mountain peak. Indescribably perfect sunset caressing dusk in the sky with a full, impossibly voluminous and well-cratered moon rise. Maybe there’s a fulsome and stoutly poised she-wolf baying with atavistic abandon at that moon. It’s the kinda thing that you might be seriously conflicted about hanging in a guest room, despite having been bequeathed such from a recently deceased, beloved uncle.
It seems as though, at this writing, that NFT “art” looks like over-determined digital art, using digital tools to make sure it looks as digital as possible. Jam all the digital aesthetics in at once — glitch the deer, cryptopunk the she-wolf, 8-bit the moon. I’m sure this isn’t always the case nor even precisely the case, nor will it forever be the case. But, it looks to be the case now. Bit-mapped graphics made to look as digital, retro, and “punk” as possible. 8-bit. Or 1-bit. Octane Render. Cryptopunk aesthetic. Something.
Im not being cynical. I’m just walking the terrain trying to do some earnest and honest sense-making.
(Maybe I’m being myopic and way too opinionated for my own good. Probably. I hope I don’t come across as if I am full of knowledge or that I know what I’m talking about such that you should believe what I say as the state of things. I want to share the shapes of things I see out there, not provide all-knowing answers to questions you may have.)
That said, I will tell you something I do know, which is something about my own very modest creative practice, which can’t help but inform what I think about this all. There, I am inclined to look at what the prevailing aesthetic is in a domain and then dance a bit with the chaos and odd looks and rolled eyeballs that might come from challenging that aesthetic to see if something unanticipated and beautiful can obtain from resisting the form and even the content. You know..looking a bit sideways at the world. Or even simply switching up the way one sees the subject. Epistemological monkey wrenching. Change the lensing.
In one case, that’s quite literally what I did. I changed the lensing. I established my own personal “rule” to challenge the assumed aesthetic of skateboard photography (bear with me), which is to photograph mostly with a fisheye lens; rarely compose through the viewfinder; shoot mostly tatt’d dudes jumping over shit with a skateboard.
I just stopped using a fisheye lens — I literally took it out of my bag and left it somewhere I’d have trouble getting to, and the next time I took it and used it I got cratered by a skateboarder who accidentally whacked it at speed while I tried to get the shot. I ended up using a quite unforgiving lens (for action) , which was a 24mm/1.4. I would shoot it wide open with like..an ND+9 on it and always composed with my eye in the viewfinder, rather than just shoving my camera in the air, which, with an extremely wide lens like a fisheye is a bit like hunting Deer No. 2 with an Armalite assault rifle — you’ll have venison sausage all over the place, guaranteed and somehow still feel like you’ve accomplished something. Oh, and I only shot photos of amazing women skateboarders, which was another aesthetic characteristic.
What’s the point of that self-indulgent side story? That established forms — aesthetics, ways of knowing, ways of seeing, ways of being — deserve to be bent around a bit at their edges routinely, with care, and with thoughtful interventions. Not to break them wholesale, but to ask and then “see” (sometimes literally) “what else” can be seen, how else we can do our sense-making, where else it can go in some other kind of world or future. Etcetera. “Question your teaspoons”, and-also practice using something other than a teaspoon.
I’m fond of asking ‘what else?’, especially when it seems like the question needn’t be asked because, well — we know everything already so we’re done. We’re never done. There’s always something else.
This one was maybe a bit more about NFTs, but I still think their value to me is largely as an object lesson about new emergent forms. Just saying, in anticipation of your graftefully accepted notes and feedback.
Oh, and-also — the latest episode of the Near Future Laboratory Podcast just dropped — a conversation with Devon Powers, author of “On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future” — I hope you give it a listen. (And if you decide to purchase her book and do so through that ‘affiliate link’, you’ll be directly supporting this newsletter, which would also be greatly appreciated.)
From a safe distance, from my Empty Backyard Pools: Los Angeles County Field Guide 2011-2013