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An Interview With James Bridle of the New Aesthetic

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I was recently asked to feed these pages with tales of innovation. Innovation - the balm of creativity for commerce and the lip salve for the media. Let's move the shiny things to one side for a moment and talk of things that tickle those who innovate -- Rather like Bruce Sterling in his opening gambit to  An Essay on the New Aesthetic, from Wired.com. I'll direct you there and beyond for a briefing on the subject.
Sterling has complied a list of recent articles on the subject.

The concept has provoked and prodded, -- the haters pick up on the title, (anything with 'New' in the title is likely to be dismissed as anything but).  Others are aggravated by the largesse of the remit and aggrieved at the inclusion of pretty much everything in recent digital times. The lovers find reassurance and bond with 'the digital thing that didn't have a name'. 

Last week I went to James Bridle's studio in Shoreditch, London, to interview the author and instigator of The New Aesthetic. He's since closed down the tumblr site that gave the world so much to bark about. The project isn't over but the time seems right to ask - Why should we care? 

We want innovation. We need to question and evaluate its methods of production and release.

The New Aesthetic, as it turns out, is totally New Aesthetic.

"One of the absolute spurs of starting the new aesthetic project was a profound displeasure and dissatisfaction with the cultural obsessional with nostalgia and retro at the moment - with vintage and all of these things" says Bridle.

Bridle has a wonderful ability to sound both old and young in the same breath. 

"You cannot move," continues Bridle, "particularly in Shoreditch, which is supposed to be the heart of this thrusting new technology, for blackboards and artisan coffee shops with nicely hued counters and people with handlebar moustaches wearing braces and it's all fine but it's not very interesting to me."

Having a pop at the hipsters, this is fun. Why do they love their trucker Victoriana so?

"It speaks of a deep fear of the future, the idea that an authenticity that can only be authenticated in the past, that we've lost faith in a kind a kind of sight for the future, is deeply worrying," explains Bridle earnestly.

Our future hasn't panned out the way we sketched it and played it out from the 1950's onwards.
I'm still not the proud owner of digital shoes, a Christmas wish since 1982...

"The future that seemed so exciting when we were children has failed to come to pass, we are not living on other planets, we don't have jet packs  and all that rubbish" admonishes Bridle, "That's just the way it's turned out -- sorry, we got the slightly wrong future. We do have, a really amazing future and we are living in it, its brilliant but its not the future we thought we were going to get" 

I ask a clumsy question about losing the shock and awe of intelligent devices, a stab at our faded hope of artificial intelligence, "Do you think there is a difference between the technological object and the human object?" I ask. "Is it a case of them and us?"

"I don't think there is a them and us, it's an entirely co-created emergent thing of this mediation between 'us and them' I find deeply fascinating" says Bridle. "The idea of classic Artificial Intelligence doesn't really apply anymore, but there is definitely something else going on that is some kind of intelligent. Intelligent behaviours do shape a huge amount of our technological stuff, whether your mortgage goes through to intelligent systems on the stock market or bot editors in Wikipedia, we are clearly living in a world that is shaped by those algorithms and technology".

Our Heads Are in the Clouds

A world shaped by technology is the leaping off point for The New Aesthetic but we need to look beyond the superficial marketing of digital products and services...

"The whole focus for so much of our technology seems to be continuous abstraction. Taking a real world physical for example, I now laugh every time I hear about 'the cloud' because I've become a bit of a data centre tourist and I go round and I find these things, and it's not 'a cloud', it's some bloody great sheds on the M4," laughs Bridle.  "One of the biggest three substantiations of the Internet is just out on Docklands in East London, the Telehouse Centre, a physical huge location that draws on a huge amount of power and resources. That place has always been very deliberately obscured, we don't like to talk about that".

An interesting point, these are not clean technologies. Greenpeace recently joined the growing throng of moral objectors banging on the door at Apple, highlighting the company's use of dirty fossil fuels in the production of their clean, white, digital tools.  

The Digital Duchamp

From what I've seen, and this maybe because my own interests lie in the more romantic world of visual aesthetics, the most vocal critics of New Aesthetic seem not to be   activists and political campaigners but artists and media-inventors (to co-opt a phase from the excellent Robin Sloan). Are we getting too wrapped up in style? We are thirsty for a new artistic movement. Certainly in the UK, Brit Art, mummified in the formaldehyde of branding, corporate sponsorship and media cash, sits like it's shark in the tank, grinning and baring it's impotent teeth. The water in the tank is due a change. We need feeding.

"Pixelated imagery is one of the totems of the New Aesthetic," muses Bridle, "it's really not what it's about but it's short hand for a lot of other things. The pixel is about to disappear because the technology has got so good that it becomes invisible so there is a point in which the New Aesthetic will of course will be become a nostalgia for a particular moment, I'm now afraid it will".

We talk about the legacy of the New Aesthetic, there have been calls for a manifesto. Bruce Sterling excitably likens Bridles performance at SWSX to that of a guru at the head of an art movement, an avant-guard posse. Bridle is circumspect about his own role and feels that other members of the panel, Ben Terrett, Joanne McNeil, Russell Davies and Aaron Straup Cope did an excellent job of broadening the discourse to encompass the impact of the concept on politics etc. whereas the debate has since focused on the visual angle.

"One of the things about New Aesthetic was that it was very much supposed to be not 'post' anything else and not 'pre' anything else, it was an observation about something hopefully grander, of which these are some current examples of," explains Bridle.  "But as soon as you start trying to ground it in that way, in manifestos and in particular works then, then yeah that's the natural reaction to it. One of the things the internet should be able to do is be less reactive than that".

This Cyberspace is not a Space

We talk about communication, of performance and the trouble with words. One issue appears to be that the New Aesthetic exists in a time where  all the things that it speaks of -- Speed, deconstruction, instant archives, rapid prototyping, the whole hyper-state we're in, -- actually harms the debate.

"It's time to get over a lot of our preconceptions," states Bridle.  "One of my problems is the complete failure of metaphors for these things  - cyberspace is not a space, that doesn't work anymore, it doesn't make sense anymore but it's still the way we conceive of it, therefore we see it as separate, in the distance and having boundaries which clearly isn't true anymore so all that kind of stuff needs rethinking, It will take a much larger thinking of what these things entail if we are going to move forward in any major way".

As an author, can James Bridle now harness and steer his innovation, or is the chaotic transfer of ideas and concepts a prime example of the New Aesthetic and a performance in its own right?

"All these things are imperfect means of communication, there will always be that but I'm happy to end by saying it's been a deeply odd and occasionally distressing experience. Some responses to it have been fantastic and extraordinary and interesting and a lot of the other responses have been extraordinarily aggressive and misguided and simply wrong. It's a very odd experience that a lot of people out there have basically gone 'the New Aesthetic is wrong' and it can be many things but it can't be wrong because I just made it up". 

Bridle is gleefully unapologetic, childlike in his defence of extremely grown up concepts and is  totally New Aesthetic in his reasoning. "You may have arguments with some of my thoughts but it is what it is" he beams.