Since May 2011, publisher, writer and computer-science academic James Bridle has been trawling the internet, drawing together moments, instances and pictures from the world we inhabit onto his “product moodboard” Tumblr, The New Aesthetic. This collection of images, texts and links covers everything from computer glitches to satellite imagery. It has developed into an interwoven non-linear research presentation that offers a fresh perspective on how we are creating a new world in tandem with technological evolution.
By equalising the physical and virtual on to an even playingfield, the project serves as an access point into how Bridle thinks and what he believes we should be thinking about. In order to understand the cyclical dialogues in which we participate, he collaborates with technology and languages to show that it is not as simple as the standard science-fiction “us and them” trope would have it.
Dazed & Confused: What prompted you to start The New Aesthetic?
James Bridle: Essentially, looking for more contemporary futures. I got really bored and fed up with the cultural triumph of vintage, braces, blackboards and facial hair, which is so unimaginative. It seemed to stem from the fact that we didn’t know what the future looked like any more. The versions of the future that we’ve grown up with – jetpacks and living on other planets – have failed. That’s not the future we’re getting. Then I realised we don’t yet have the technology or critical background to describe what our future might be because it’s somewhat invisible. I set out to look for the physical instantiations of that effect, of the digital and the physical starting to coexist and the divisions between them breaking down.
D&C: Are you invested in the practices of contemporary artists working with those ideas – the actual and the virtual, the material and the ephemeral?
James Bridle: I’m interested when artists’ practices are interesting examples of the things that I’m talking about, but I take a lot from literature and technology and everyday life as well. I see examples of the things I’m interested in talking about everywhere. I’m not always interested in the deliberate exploration of them – it’s possibly more interesting when they occur accidentally as an emergent property of the world. My knowledge of the scene is not great, but some of the aims and starting points of post-internet art are the same as The New Aesthetic, which is to acknowledge that the internet is not some separate medium where other things happen, but that it is overlaid and increasingly integrated with everyday life.
D&C: How do you select and accumulate those things? Do you go on digital drifts around the internet?
James Bridle: The first is just being interested and paying attention to everything, but exploring the web in a free-flowing way is always part of it. I think of it as a scientific thinking-process, as opposed to an artistic one in which you have an idea and follow it down to as many conclusions as possible. I think of this more scientific process as going, ‘Well, there’s something strange happening over here and another strange phenomenon happening over here, therefore in this third location those should create a pressure in which something will emerge,’ and then going and finding that thing. Hypothesising that the strange event or experience must occur, then going to find examples of that. The New Aesthetic is not just about images, but when you create a Tumblr to describe it, that becomes the dominant mode, a useful visual shorthand.
D&C: The internet enables a recording of kneejerk reactions, in opposition to the drawn-out and closed-off research processes within academia; is The New Aesthetic an accumulation of impulsive ideas?
James Bridle: Not kneejerk, but not fully formed... You don’t have to put out a ‘this is my opinion and I’m going to defend it and stick to it’. The process is far more iterative, more like a software development
process than an academic theory. However, things can build into a perfect Twitter-storm and become too diffuse too quickly.
D&C: Would you say your process is more akin to curation or software development?
James Bridle: I’m hesitant to call it curation as that term is bandied around a lot at the moment. I’m fine with ‘collecting’ – the cabinetof- wonders approach. I have a technical background and the mindset that comes with that gives you a toolkit for approaching ideas. Being able to reverse-engineer ideas and technologies from that perspective is incredibly valuable. The world around us has been built by digital processes so we need to employ some of these tools to analyse them as well.
D&C: You focus on a lot of military technology. Do you feel a responsibility to highlight certain issues that may be swept under the carpet?
James Bridle: Everybody has a responsibility to look at those things. I try very hard not to add to the collections too selfconsciously – that’s why it stopped midway through the year when commentary on The New Aesthetic was at its peak, because I was becoming too overcritical of my own intentions. There’s a lot of glitch art out there and a lot of it is purely aesthetic – it’s purely style – but when you approach it with the eye of a programmer or technologist, glitches are how you diagnose systems. Every time I see a glitch I think, ‘What does that reveal about the underlying architecture of a system that created this thing?’ The paranoid-critical method is quite essential to me – it’s related to the drift.
D&C: You have a fascination with drones – in one of your other ongoing projects, Drone Shadows, you outline them on the ground in chalk. Why?
James Bridle: Besides the straight-up implications of remote or robotic warfare, drones stand for a physicalisation of this unknowable digital distance, because most people don’t see them. The image I draw is a direct tracing to scale of a Predator drone, the most common type of drone employed by the US and UK forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world, but most people haven’t seen one, and if they see pictures the scale is unclear. That invisibility allows them to be used to do things that perhaps we should be uncomfortable with. The sketching of them is to do a simple scale-model, to say to people, ‘This is a thing that exists in the world.’ On top of that you’re sketching it as a chalk outline that has all the echoes a chalk outline of a figure on the ground does, as well as the shadow of looking up and being underneath this thing, so simply marking something passing over.
D&C: What are your pressing concerns and strongest hopes and fears for the future?
James Bridle: Whenever we talk about the future, unless we’re being a bit ridiculous we’re using it as a metaphor for the present. I talk about the future a lot with regards to The New Aesthetic but every single example I use is something that’s already occurring. So for me it’s not about the future, it’s simply about encouraging a more inquisitive interest in the present. If I have a fear it’s that people simply do not analyse the systems around them. We increasingly design for an illegibility in technology – we try and make it obscure and distant and as seamless and invisible as possible. It makes it very, very hard to be an actor in the world, to have an effect politically or personally, if you’re being acted upon by systems you don’t recognise. My hope is that there is better thinking and education about technology so that doesn’t happen.
Photography by Adam Gong