Help me, Tupac Shakur, you’re my only hope. (image via

LOS ANGELES — So much has been said about the New Aesthetic. I first heard about it from Bruce Sterling’s influential essay in Wired and moving on to a series of response posts from the Creators Project. It was all in response to a panel at SXSW and its accompanying tumblelog. The biggest question I’ve noticed from smart folks who think about this kind of thing is, well, “Is this a thing?” Few had heard of this idea of a new aesthetic before Sterling’s essay and the panel, and many have raised questions about its definition. These were a few responses I caught on my Twitter stream:!/ManBartlett/status/188368964873752577!/anxiaostudio/status/190297789677318144!/alexleavitt/status/190298219723501569!/Chrysaora/status/190855761235165185!/juliaxgulia/status/188635005738680321

James Bridle’s blog post on the New Aesthetic has a picture that sums it up for me: “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices.” One paragraph caught my eye:

One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine. It should also be clear that this ‘look’ is a metaphor for understanding and communicating the experience of a world in which the New Aesthetic is increasingly pervasive.

And now that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this concept of a New Aesthetic, i.e. (if I understand it correctly), an aesthetic influenced by the way computers see the world and, by extension, how see the world, I’ve started to see signs that maybe the New Aesthetic is indeed a thing, a thing so enmeshed in our way of life that we’ve noticed it but not yet given it a name. It’s just seeped into our world so much that even those of us watching art and technology hadn’t thought about it thoroughly before. Here are just a few signs I picked up in the past week or so.

Holographic Tupac and Hatsune Miku

Some fifteen years ago, the world of hip hop was rocked by the death of Tupac Shakur, arguably its greatest star at the time. I remember rumors floating around that Tupac was still alive, and that he’d been seen at this or that locale. But he never did come back, till this weekend, when, Princess Leia-style, he was spotted on stage alongside former collaborator Snoop Dogg at Coachella.

What’s remarkable about this is that it wasn’t that earth shaking.During the last Presidential campaign, we laughed at a Wolf Blitzer hologram, but now we’re happy to rock out to a Tupac one. I’d already been familiar with the stage performances of Hatsune Miku, a completely fictional, animated pop singer in Japan who draws massive audiences, and the folks who made Tupac’s hologram worked on Benjamin Button and holographic concerts for the Gorillaz. And then there are the inevitable parodies, like a Twitter account and an interview:

Till just a week ago, solo holographic performances might have seemed niche for a tech-savvy place like Japan, but then along came Pac’s first solo performance on stage since his death. But we’d been keeping him alive all along, with YouTube videos, animated GIFs, movie specials. So few of us have seen him in person; we’ve seen him instead mediated by digital devices — is it really all that different to see him on stage now as a hologram?

Finding Mom on Google Earth

This story has been exploding on social media, and for good reason. A young Indian orphan, adopted by parents in Tasmania, was able to locate his long lost mother. But he didn’t do a search the usual way (at least at first), by knocking door to door or by putting out a call for help. He was five years old and not yet literate when he lost his family on a fateful train ride, so he didn’t even know the name of the town he came from.

Khandwa, India, as seen through Google Maps.
Khandwa, India, as seen through Google Maps.

But he used Google Earth to swoop over the vast stretches of India, using a little math and a little luck to find the town of Khandwa. Here’s what he said:

He drew a circle on a map with its centre in Calcutta, with its radius about the distance he thought he had travelled. Incredibly, he soon discovered what he was looking for: Khandwa. “When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up. I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play.”

The rest of the story plays out in a traditional way, with him knocking door to door and asking people if they might know his family.  But the first time he saw his hometown again after some 25 years away was through the eyes of a satellite. To borrow from James Bridle’s words, we could say he collaborated with the machines for an incredible reconnecting with his roots.

Google Glasses Spoofs

The eyes of the Terminator remain iconic today for a simple reason: they showed us how a machine might see the world, not just visually but with data being processed live on screen. It wasn’t hard to imagine that one day we might have access to something like it. And along came Project Glass, a series of concepts for augmented reality technology being developed and tested by Google. But what was more interesting to me was the spoofs. After the initial “wow” factor of a world enmeshed in augmented reality, we found ourselves with a more mundane reality: advertising and glitches.

The speed of the spoofs suggests that maybe we’ve already become accustomed to seeing our personal world — our personal emails, our Facebook chats, our Flickr photos — augmented with advertisements and facial recognition. It doesn’t take long to imagine the once mythical vision of the Terminator reality blanketed with the same.

The glasses themselves are not new per se. Recon HUD goggles already promise to turn any snowboarding session into a real life video game, with live stats and sync up to your Android phone. Two years ago, I tested out Canon’s mixed reality goggles, which floored me with how advanced they were — if only they weren’t so cumbersome. But it’s the promise of daily augmented reality that makes Google Glasses interesting, and no longer so farfetched that we can’t imagine the more mundane realities of its day to day use.

These are just a few phenomena I’ve been noticing now that the idea of a New Aesthetic has been planted in my head, and I hope you’ll forgive the rambling. (I’m drawn to spoofs in particular because they suggest that we’ve already gotten over ideas like holograms and augmented reality and are ready to make fun of them.) There are many others. Take, for instance, the $1 billion purchase of Instagram, a service that lets you see and capture your reality through computerized filters. Or the fact that the Vatican’s archives are now going to be available online, transforming how we experience these ancient, once difficult-to-access texts. But my mind isn’t yet made up, which is probably a sign this is a topic worth more exploration.

What about you, dear Hyperallergic reader? Have you been thinking about the New Aesthetic? Is it a “thing”? Does it have a clear definition?

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AX Mina

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...

6 replies on “Is the New Aesthetic a Thing? Searching for Signs in Tupac and Google”

  1. Sounds like the modernist pegging of a style – maybe they should write a manifesto. 

    There’s no doubt that technology is profoundly affecting art, but it’d be more appropriate to call it ‘a new aesthetic’ rather than ‘The New Aesthetic’.  A good deal of it is rooted in poor taste “retro-ness” like incessent GIFs that reference the early 90’s and “nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s”.  Just doesn’t seem like the stuff of a new world view

    I really like a lot of that work, but a lot of it doesn’t feel so much like “The New Aesthetic” as this season’s inventory at Urban Outfitters. 

  2. It seems to be a sort of soft-peddled anthropomorphizing of computers and digital imaging equipment which would be more accurately defined not as collaborators but as tools.

    As for the Tupac hologram, what is artistic about that?  The technology, the medium and message it was designed to push (popular commercial music), or the internet-based reactions to it?  I find each of those options problematic at best and incredibly shallow at worst.  In fact, it would seem akin to thinking the big important part of Plato’s allegory of the cave is to sit and watch the shadows dancing on the cave wall.

  3. More On the “New Aesthetic” – It’s Not Quite So New

    Mark Hansen, a critical theorist at Duke University states:

    “the computational revolution is altering the infrastructure of our
    lifeworld profoundly and thereby changing what it means to be human and
    also what is involved in practicing the humanities today. I believe that
    the humanities must embrace technology and that humanists must enter
    full-scale into the informatics revolution by, for example, contesting
    the meaning and value of information and rethinking what it means to be
    human in a realtime, digitally-networked, global world in which we often
    cognize in concert with intelligent machines.”

    Hansen understands the flashpoint between traditional cultural
    theorists and the tsunami of the digital and networked worlds. This is
    an under developed area within most art practice programs, and digital
    media programs. The first focuses on theory, often starting with
    Euro-centric philosophical and critical forms. The second hammers home
    programtic structure and exactitude.

    Hansen states”

    “theorists simply overlook the non-representational, experiential,
    and massively diffuse impact of technologies on social and cultural


  4. Like any area of art there will be good and bad. Computers are making ‘art’ easier to create and that isn’t always a good thing. If the computer is doing most of the work it cheapens it in my opinion. Music for instance used to come out of hand playing of instruments and natural voices…now that is done by pushing buttons and everyone with a computer now thinks they are a DJ…but not in the literal sense of playing music but now they think they are artists because the computer is doing all of the work. They are not…it can be argued if it is 100% original music they might be but in most cases it still sounds like something straight from a computer program.

    I’m a photographer and digital cameras have opened up a can of worms where you no longer have to understand how to use a camera…you just use an automated settling. Still the vision is 100% yours and at least in that way is pure. I stay in the realm of doing nothing more with Photoshop than you could do in a darkroom and if I venture beyond that I no longer call it a photograph.

    The space shuttle flew over Washington, DC and everyone blasted Facebook with their images. I was happy that I was in a location where the flight path was right over me and I got great up close photos of the flight. A coworker at my photo studio came in the next day with photographs of the plane/shuttle next to the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, The National Air Force Memorial, The Lincoln Memorial, and the National Air and Space Museum some 30 miles away from DC.

    I knew the images had been photoshopped and asked which ones were ‘real’…to which the angered coworker snipped back at me, “What do you mean real? They are all real!!!” To which I replied, “I mean the actual photos.” To which he responded, “They are all actual photos!!!” When I finally found my answer it was 2 out of the 30 he showed me in which the plane/shuttle were little more than tiny blips in a white background. But to him..they were all ‘real’ even though none of them were captured directly by a camera. Yet he would proudly sell any of the images as if it were a legitimate photograph instead of saying it is graphic art…belittling what true photographs achieve with vision, positioning, the use of a camera and luck.

  5. hmmmm. What I find interesting in this debate/dialogue is the starting point of complete immersion. Remove the mechanics and what have you got? We insist now on interpreting the world – and interacting with that world – through devices, be it computer with internet hookup or camera or phone with WiFi etc. These means validate our existence to others and ourselves as we re-broadcast, mash-up and/or ‘consume’ whatever wherever our eyeballs take us. But how odd it is all becoming. Really. Yes, marvelous technology in many ways, but equally, it’s all kinda creepy. The creepy part is the TOTAL immersed addicts who NO LONGER separate themselves from ‘the machines’ that define THEM. The problem with this Borg-like phenomenon is that eventually and ultimately ‘the Borg’ will gain greater positions of power. Rest assured that it will be THEIR singular notion of ‘Reality’ that will DOMINANT (caps intentional) everyone else. Why? Because they are Masters of the Uni-opps-Technology and as most already know, geeks play to WIN. Heaven help those who don’t ‘conform’ and/or don’t really give a damn. Seriously. It’s going to be brutal.

  6. I think that this is not an art movement so much as an observation; the recognition of an established “way of seeing” (as James Bridle says) that we’ve actually been living and working with for some time now. Once a thing is given a name, it then begins to have shape and we are able to explore what it means in deeper terms. Therefore naming this aspect of modern culture will allows us to understand our recent history, present and future.

    Additionally, this idea relates to futurism- the authors of that movement were interested in how the technology of their time shaped their world.

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