Since Bruce Sterling’s excellent post at Beyond the Beyond covering “The New Aesthetic” panel at SxSW ’12, a lot of other entries have sprung up talking about it. I thought I’d round some up:
- An Essay on the New Aesthetic, by Bruce Sterling
- The New Aesthetic and I, by Damien G. Walter
- New Aesthetics — New Politics, POSZU
- The New Aesthetic and Future Fatigue, by Klint Finley
- The New Aesthetic Tumblr, with a report from SxSW on the panel
Personally, my favourite has to be POSZU’s, just for this:
The New Aesthetic reeks of power relations. Drones, surveillance, media, networks, digital photography, algorithms. This is largely about the technology of “seeing”, and how we see this new technology of seeing. But the technology is also for watching. The ability to watch someone is a form of power. It controls the flow of information. “I know everything about you, but you know nothing about me.” Or, “I know everything about you, and all you can do is make art about the means by which I know things.”
As someone who wrote a Master’s thesis on border security, and who earned some money from a project on the intersection of the digital and the physical, you can see why I’d be interested in the sudden codification and definition of this type of thing.
What concerns me about the links I’m seeing is that they’re mostly written about men, by men. Part of this may have to do with the predominance of men in tech reporting, but it’s also likely symptomatic of the way girls can be shut out of hacking practises because they have the temerity to be interested in haptic fashion. When guys do it, it’s an “art movement.” When girls do it, it’s “arts and crafts.”
But that power differential, while disappointing, should not be surprising. To build on POSZU’s statement, if the New Aesthetic is also about the politics of the gaze, that gaze has usually been male — ask Laura Mulvey or Carol Clover. Moreover, the massive expansions of NSA surveillance facilities are less likely to include women, because universities are failing to entice women to study computer science. The people wiretapping you without a warrant? Most of them are men.
What intrigues me about this is that just as the New Aesthetic is flush with women hacking their information and taking control of the messages they present, the NSA is training a generation of men to take up habits that were once considered stereotypically feminine: eavesdropping, curtain-twitching, and gossiping. The NSA is funding a generation of Mrs. Grundys, and they just happen to be men. These two dynamics feed each other. We share more and more information, and They pick it up, but We know They’re picking it up, so We share more creatively, but They take that as evidence, so We wear ugly t-shirts….and on, and on, and on. It’s a conversation.
The fact that it’s a conversation between artists and the forces observing them is nothing new. We’ve been through this before. We used to design cathedrals so grand God had to notice. Now we print the pattern of faded denim jeans on linen pants so cleverly the Internet has to notice. We crochet masks so facial recognition-enabled cameras won’t notice. Someone is always watching. Someone has always been watching.
If you’re a woman, you’ve probably known that your whole life. It started with somebody — probably your mother — telling you how to sit, how to dress, how much to show, what to reveal, what not to reveal. Your skin, your smell, your opinion. Secretly, you wondered, “Does anybody actually notice this kind of thing?” And then, somebody did. A guy. A guy who shouted at you across the street: “HEY! SMILE! YOU’D BE A LOT PRETTIER IF YOU JUST SMILED! THERE! THAT’S BETTER!” A guy with a friend, who did a U-turn in his truck just to say that he thought he’d seen you somewhere before, and what were you doing later? A guy who asked if you were pregnant, because you were starting to look a little thick. A guy who told you to get some sleep, because you looked terrible.
Apparently, it took the preponderance of closed-circuit television cameras for some men to feel the intensity of the gaze that women have almost always been under. It took the invention of Girls Around Me*. It took Facebook. It took geo-location. That spirit of performativity you have about your citizenship, now? That sense that someone’s peering over your shoulder, watching everything you do and say and think and choose? That feeling of being observed? It’s not a new facet of life in the twenty-first century. It’s what it feels like for a girl.
Gentlemen of the New Aesthetic, I suggest you listen to the ladies in your life as you design for the emergent properties of security technology. They’ve been dealing with unwanted attention for a lot longer. Ladies of the New Aesthetic: keep on keeping on. Keep making. Keep creating. Keep lilypadding. And remember to demand better. Most of the time, you’ll get it.
*Charlie is not one of those guys just waking up to this phenomenon. He takes it up beautifully in his novel Glasshouse, which I recommend highly.