New Aesthetic at SXSW

March 14, 2012
The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices at SXSW 2012


On Monday, I was part of an excellent panel organized by James Bridle, creator of the New Aesthetic.

Here are his notes from the talkRussell DaviesBen Terrett and Aaron Straup Cope have posted their notes. Here are a few of the images and quotes I assembled for my talk on the “new aesthetic” past. I think what James is getting at with the New Aesthetic is how culture is embracing the tools of today. Here I try my best to find some art historical context:

view from the Eiffel Tower

Advancing technology always brings a new way of seeing. Maps might still have serpents and dragons to depict unknown territories were it not for the voyages of merchants and explorers. With hot air balloons and air travel, we got to see the world as a bird sees it. Going to the top of the Eiffel Tower meant seeing the textures of the ground as patterns and shapes.

Kasimir Malevich

Malevich was obsessed with aerials, which informed his work. He specifically worked to depict the look of what was modern.

How can a man who always rides in a gig understand the experiences and impressions of one who travels in an express, or flies through the air? The Academy is a moldy vault, in which art flagellates itself. Huge wars, great inventions, conquest of the air, speed of travel, telephones, telegraphs, dreadnoughts—the realm of electricity. But our young artists paint Neros and half-naked Roman warriors.
— Kazimir Malevich


The Italian Futurists, among other things, were fascinated by the new sounds of machinery — the clacks and cracks. A new way of hearing….

After being conquered by Futurist eyes our multiplied sensibilities will at last hear with Futurist ears. In this way the motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be consciously attuned, so that every factory will be transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.
— Luigi Russolo


I am kino-eye, I am mechanical eye, I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it…. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you.
— Dziga Vertov

Of course, photography and moving image meant an entirely new way of seeing. Vertov is known now for developing many camera tricks, but I believe his consideration of himself as an amoral bystander viewing the world with a “mechanical eye” is particularly relevant to this conversation. He is articulating that his device — the camera — sees for him, and he sees for the camera. Together they see what was previously invisible to everyone.

Franz Kline

When we look at Cubist black and white paintings, Guernica for example, it might seem to our eyes as something old — a depiction of the past. But consider what black and white looked like to Picasso — it was the look of film and photography, the modern lens.

In 1948, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline bought a 5-gallon can of black enamel. They borrowed a Bell-Opticon projector and depicted the ways that light and shadow appear on a screen. The sense of three dimentional space and depth on a flat plane. Again representing a new perspective through technology.


The dazzle camouflage pattern was the work of the artist Norman Wilkinson. It was not to make tanks or jets invisible, instead it served to obscure their size, shape, speed, and other such aspects from the enemy. When Picasso saw dazzle camouflage tanks in Paris he reportedly said, ‘It is we that have created that.’”

Dara Birnbaum

Television also created a new way of seeing. Robert Rauschenberg’s collage-like pieces were inspired by the snow and flicker of a TV set. John Cage said Rauschenberg’s work looked like “many television sets working simultaneously all tuned in differently.” These concepts were further expressed in the work of video artists like Nam June Paik and Dara Birnbaum. Digital art — or work with new media — further explores the glitches and failures of technology

It is now normal that in the future the consumer will pay less for a device that can do more, but at the same time will reach a state of obsolescence faster… The user has to realize that improvement is nothing more than a proprietary protocol, a deluded consumer myth of progression towards a holy grail of perfection. Every (future) technology possesses its own fingerprints of imperfection…
— Rosa Menkman, Glitch Studies Manifesto

Going back to Vertov’s point of being a bystander, Jon Rafman’s 9 Eyes of Google Street View project specifically critiques the amoral lens of this surveillance.

Although the Google search engine may be seen as benevolent, Google Street Views present a universe observed by the detached gaze of an indifferent Being. Its cameras witness but do not act in history. For all Google cares, the world could be absent of moral dimension…. It is we who must make sense of Google’s record of our experience, for good or for ill.
— Jon Rafman, 9 Eyes of Google Street View

Surveying tools from 1728

Technology creates new ways of seeing — with every advance we move closer to understanding what the world is about. With progress come new points-of-view, new perspectives, new possiblities…