Paleolithic Punk and the Venus of Marseilles

Venuses of Willendorf (30-27ky) and Marseilles (1882)

To the left, the Venus of Willendorf, a 10.8 cm high stone statuette dating from the Paleolithic era, 30-27 kyr. To the right, the first anthropomorphic design for an atmospheric diving suite built by the Carmagnolle brothers of Marseilles, France in 1882.

The Carmagnolle brothers diving suite is the stuff of steampunk fantasy, but perhaps so situating it is time-out-of-joint in the wrong direction. Instead of designating it as a paleo-future, it is more properly a parachronism: perhaps we should call it the Venus (Ares) of Marseilles (with the Venus of Willendorf as old stone punk).

Flaming December

Annie Leibovitz's December 2013 Vogue cover, Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton's Flaming June

I love pre-Raphaelite women and I love homage, parody, covers, remix, mashup, etc., so I’m crazy for Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June (1895) for the cover of the December 2013 Vogue. The Vogue website has a slideshow counterpoising the photo shoot with the inspirational source material.

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Annie Leibovitz and Vogue spoofing some vintage design. Perhaps the most popular post on this blog (not because anyone is interested in the rambling post; mostly because people are ripping off the image) is “Destroy This Mad Brute“, an analysis of the meaning of LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen mimicking an anti-old Europe First World War U.S. propaganda poster.

New Aesthetic, 1975-1979

The aim of all these conferences is to be like the Broad Street water pump: a hub where everyone gets infected. The cholera outbreak of South by Southwest 2012 is New Aesthetic.

A morning sessions on day four of the conference was dedicated to the subject and James Bridle, the prime mover of the theory, wrote up some notes of his talk in what is now the text of reference (“#sxaesthetic“, booktwo.org, 15 March 2012). The basis for Mr. Bridle’s talk is the material he has been collecting for nearly a year now via his New Aesthetic tumblr. Bruce Sterling attended the session and wrote it up in an effusive post for Wired (“An Essay on the New Aesthetic“, 2 April 2012). A significant conversation has broken out on twitter. Julia Kaganskiy at The Creators Project has collected up a number of responses (“In Response To Bruce Sterling’s ‘Essay On The New Aesthetic’“, 6 April 2012). Ian Bogost has responded in The Atlantic Monthly (“The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder“, 13 April 2012).

U.S. Navy MARPAT digital camouflage

In the military, where the people are tessellated.

And Mr. Bridle isn’t making this up. There is the example of New Aesthetic with which most people are probably most familiar, namely military’s new generation BDU, the ACUPAT / MARPAT digital camouflage, consisting of complex, non-repeating pattern generated by fractal equations. But before starting this post I decided to go out and walk around my neighborhood to see how much stuff I could find in half-an-hour with a vaguely New Aesthetic sensibility. The street that I live on is only five blocks long, boxed in by a school, sports fields and parks department superblock to the east and Rock Creek Park to the west. At the east end of my street, the local library is undergoing an expansion. Here is the new wing under construction:

New wing of the Mount Pleasant Public Library under construction, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

At the west end of my street, this guy finished a repurposing of his off street parking into an outdoor area just in time for the best weather of the year:

Repurposed neighborhood back parking stall, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

That’s two independent projects within five blocks of each other in my sleepy spur neighborhood. New Aesthetic is obviously real as a popular practice, not just a theory.

I’m sympathetic but skeptical for a number of reasons. I will detail what are my two major reasons for skepticism here.

Bricks: pixilated clay, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

Bricks: pixilated clay

First, as Nathan Jurgenson has said, an oddity of New Aesthetic is that “many of the images rely on the techno-nostalgia of the near past.” New Aesthetic is technologically eclectic in its inspiration, with some of its images reliant on the most advanced scientific visualizations, but a significant portion of its most outstanding images rely on pixilation, low resolution, interpolation, false color, reduced data sets or the selectivity of only machine-decisive elements. So we end up with things like pixilated crayons and umbrellas.

But this isn’t representative of the influence of technology on contemporary technology. It is an anachronism, a recreation of an already superseded era of computer capability. To illustrate by reference to the development of stealth technology.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

New Aesthetic, circa 1979

The first of the modern stealth airplanes was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. In response to the effectiveness of surface-to-air missiles in the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, and to significant improvements in the Soviet air defense system, in 1974 DARPA requested that contractors begin investigating the application of advances in theories of radiation deflection into the construction of low radar cross-section (RCS) aircraft. The problem that designers faced was the need to come up with shapes that balanced the requirements of both aerodynamics and radiation-deflection. The prototype that Lockheed Skunk Works developed came to be known as Have Blue. Aeronautical engineer Bill Schroeder worked with software engineer Dennis Overholser to write a program called ECHO-1, run on a Cray supercomputer, that would search a design space for an optimum tradeoff of aerodynamics and radar cross-section. The problem was the limited computational power at their disposal. Searching over the variability of smooth shapes would have resulted in an intolerably long run-time. The way around this problem was to limit the variability of the surfaces by what came to be termed within Lockheed Skunk Works as “faceting”: the larger the facets, the shorter the run-time. What determined the facet resolution of the plane that would become the F-117 Stealth Fighter was the desired run-time of the computer program to optimize its design trade-offs. In essence, the facets of F-117 are the resolution of the simulation used to select the optimum design. The F-117 is the Atari of fighter planes.

(Even having so optimized the design, the aerodynamics were sufficiently compromised by the demands of a minimal radar cross-section that the plane had to be fly-by-wire, with an onboard computer system making constant minor adjustments to engine thrust and control surfaces to stabilize the plane.)

B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber

The new New Aesthetic.

But only a few years later the New Aesthetic moment has already passed. By the time that DARPA began contracting in 1979 for a stealth strategic bomber to replace the B-52, the availability of computer power had already improved markedly, to the point where the smooth surfaces of the Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber are specified to such exacting precisions that most of the pieces for the stealth skin of the plane are cut and assembled by machines. A scant four years later the pixilated faceting of the F-117 had been superseded by organic shapes of the B-2, the Jurassic Park of airframes. At the high-end of computing, 1979 was already the end of New Aesthetic. Through consumer products like Atari, NES and VGA, the computational and engineering practice of New Aesthetic would persist into the early 1990s, but much beyond that New Aesthetic becomes “shock of the old”.

Taraxacum officinale: A 30 million year old network cluster diagram

A 30 million year old network cluster diagram.

My second cause for skepticism can also be construed as an extension of Mr. Jurgenson’s question, “why reduce ontological, epistemological & phenomenological points to aesthetics?” To identify the aesthetic as the interesting feature of these phenomena is to really diminish the significance of what it is that is happening in the most unusual of these situations. What is more interesting than the surface appearance of the end products is the fact that the limits of our computational capability, the limits of information, the limits that exist in the ideal realm are pushing out to become the limits of the material world as well. What is interesting about things like the F-117 stealth fighter or buildings designed with AutoDesk is not that they look computer-y, but that they are interfaces, sights of interaction between the ideal and the material — and more important, places where the ideal has assumed the superior position, determining the contours of the material.

Cryogenic Testing the James Webb Telescope Mirrors

À la three posts ago (“Tithing for Metaphysics,” 23 July 2010), I was only using the James Webb Space Telescope as a pretext for a tirade on the political economy of big science and discovery being as much a product of labor and capital — just rarified forms — as other endeavors. The James Webb Space Telescope is starting to come together now and this unusual picture from NASA is getting a lot of play. Here are six out of the eighteen mirrors that will together comprise the main reflector of the telescope about to go into cryogenic testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Cryogenic testing of 6 James Webb Space Telescope mirrors, Marshall Space Flight Center, November 2010

It’s worth noting here that science inadvertently results in a lot of images that could be considered as art — the various images generated by particle accelerators being a favorite here. It’s also worth noting that an independent review panel recently concluded that the project will go $1.5 billion over budget and run a year behind schedule, unless NASA comes up with $500 million more to get it back on schedule (Gupta, Sujata, “Over-Budget Telescope Threatens Other Projects,” New Scientist, 16 November 2010). That’s another $14.50 per taxpayer, bring our total contributions up to $47.40 each — a small price to pay for photographs of infinity.

Freedom Safely Delivered to Future Generations

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Listening to President Obama’s Inaugural Address with the variable sound quality on the Mall, I thought it was okay. An inaugural address should be more high principle and values than policy specifics and argumentation. Does the President know that he has a State of the Union Address in like 20 days? Save all of the detail and proposals and the laundry lists for then. And there was a too much of the boilerplate political rhetoric about our children and the future and freedom, et cetera.

But on a second listening, the rhetoric remains a little too detailed, but the overarching structure of the Address stands out to me, and within their context, a few lines become brilliant. The Address is constructed as a meditation on Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (above; higher resolution version here).

As SLOG’s reporter onsite Christopher Frizzelle points out (“A Review of the Speech from the Third Row,” 20 January 2009), the Address is bookended by images of storms and ice. The new President starts by saying,

The words [of the oath] have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

And ends with similar imagry:

… in this winter of our hardship … let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come

Mr. Frizzelle characterizes it thus:

He is doing there what poets, namely the Romantic poets, used to do better than anyone — expressing the emotional / psychological plane of reality in terms of weather, pastoral phenomena, landscape.

The coda of the speech, the closing invocation of ice and storms, is a description of one of the darker moments during the Revolutionary War. In July of 1776 the British had landed on Staten Island and for the remainder of the year dealt a string of defeats to the Continental Army, capturing New York City, driving the Continental Army into retreat up Manhattan, across New Jersey and across the Delaware river into Pennsylvania. Washington’s army had been reduced from 19,000 to 5,000 and the Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia anticipating British capture when the campaign season resumed in spring. It was, as President Obama described it, “a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt.”

The Continental Army encamped at McKonkey’s Ferry, Pennsylvania where General George Washington plotted a surprise attack back across the Delaware River. It was an especially unconventional move as the British had assumed the campaigning season over and established winter quarters. As President Obama relates, prior to the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River General Washington ordered that a reading be made amidst the soldiers. The words are not General Washington’s, but those of Thomas Paine. Mr. Paine had been traveling with the Continental Army and his pamphlet, The American Crisis had just been published. It was this from that General Washington judged that the night’s inspiration would be drawn. The line that President Obama quoted from Paine is this:

Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

The victory won at the Battle of Trenton resulted in a turn away from the flagging morale of the Continental Army. When the British attempted to retake Trenton on 3 January 1777, they were outmaneuvered and quite nearly driven out of New Jersey.

The central arc of President Obama’s speech, set between the two snows and storms, reflects Thomas Paine’s image of “the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive.” Since it’s Barack Obama, the hope part goes without saying at this point, no? So the body of the speech addresses itself to the virtues by which the country will meet our “common danger.” Here I would like to make a list of examples, but the surprising thing about rereading this speech is how his description of the various virtues defies a simple list. They are often painted in contrasts, or without directly saying their name. I think something like constancy is a good example. “We are the keepers of this legacy.” “… the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.” For an obvious example, he says,

Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.

Even when listing other values, constancy — “these things are old” — underlies them all. One of the best parts of the speech for me, especially as a leftist, was the President’s paean to workers, especially “men and women obscure in their labor.”

Among all these virtues, one receives particular recognition: unity, self-sacrifice, the common good, the gaze toward something greater than one’s self. “[Our predecessors] saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.” The cynics have forgotten “… what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose …” “… more united, we cannot help but believe … that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve …”

Look again now at Mr. Leutze’s painting. It’s most outstanding characteristics are an imposing river of ice between the Continental Army and the New Jersey shore, a tumult of citizen soldiers raging in boats and on the near shore. In the midst of this chaos and struggle rises the figure of General Washington, unperturbed, resolute, beyond the fray, his face fixed on distant goals and illuminated by the bursting sky.

Then study the crew of the boat. It is a microcosm of the colonies. The two oarsmen in the bow of the boat are a Scotch (note the Scottish bonnet) and an African American. There are two farmers in broad-brimmed hats toward the back. The man at the stern of the boat is quite possibly a Native American (note the satchel). There is an androgynous rower in red who is perhaps supposed to be suggestive of women. “… our patchwork heritage is our strength.”

Return now to President Obama’s Address. In this winter of adversity what persists are our virtues, above all unity. The icy currents of the bookends of the speech are the Delaware River, the middle arc of the virtues of the nation are the boat with its diverse crew of rebel irregulars. And consider the last line of the Address, “… with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” It is a description of General Washington, father and symbol of the nation, rising out of the clamor of peoples — out of many, one — illuminated, gazing toward the future of freedom safely delivered over to the other side.

I’m not exactly a nationalist or a collectivist. I’m not so hot on all the unity talk. I more prefer an individualist, contending interest groups theory of politics. We are most markedly not one people and to say otherwise is the propaganda of an agenda. But if you dig Romanticist nationalism, then President Obama in his Inaugural Address is your artist-president, poet-in-chief.

The Beijing Olympics Did Not Take Place

One of the amusing stories coming out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies is that it turns out that a portion of the video feed of the fireworks display was actually a computer simulation spliced into the broadcast. The fireworks were set off, but planners determined that they wouldn’t be able to film them as well as they would have liked, so they manufactured a version of them according to how they wanted them to have been filmed (Spencer, Richard, “Beijing Olympic 2008 opening ceremony giant firework footprints ‘faked’,” Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2008):

Gao Xiaolong, head of the visual effects team for the ceremony, said it had taken almost a year to create the 55-second sequence. Meticulous efforts were made to ensure the sequence was as unnoticeable as possible: they sought advice from the Beijing meteorological office as to how to recreate the hazy effects of Beijing’s smog at night, and inserted a slight camera shake effect to simulate the idea that it was filmed from a helicopter.

But what does it even mean to say that portions of the event were “faked”? The whole thing was illusion and artifice. Obviously significant portions of the event were computer graphics. The scroll that served as the mat for a significant portion of the floor show included computer graphics to create the image of its rolling. The projection of the Earth inside the globe was computer graphics and the unfurling scroll around the perimeter of the stadium as the final flamebearer faux-ran to the Olympic torch was computer graphics.

Increasingly computer graphics will come to be the norm, what’s really “real” and the merely material world will become the anomaly. Already we’re at the point where the big story about the latest Batman film was not the CG, but that the stuff that would usually be CG wasn’t CG (e.g. Brown, Scott, “Dark Knight Director Shuns Digital Effects For the Real Thing,” Wired, vol. 16, no. 7, July 2008, pp. 122-127). Already people are talking about augmented reality. The problem that I have with, say, Google maps and other special data, is that it’s stuck in a little box in my hand. Where it belongs is overlayed onto the world. Real-world objects are the ultimate representational tokens.

Movable type, opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics, 8 August 2008

Or, to turn things around, my favorite performance of the night was the “movable type” arrangement of 897 actuating blocks that raised and lowered to create patterns like a waving flag and ripples in a pond. My first reaction was that it must be computer control that created the images of waves and ripples. I wondered at how much that many hydraulic lifts must have cost and tried to imagine the programming that could produce those patters. The first time the camera panned low and showed human legs standing and squatting I was amazed.

This was an instance of “natural” things “simulating” machines. What we were watching was giant wooden pixels. What was amazing about this performance was that humans could achieve this machine-like level of control and precision.

1994, David Turnley, James Nachtwey, 1994 elections in South Africa

But of course I don’t need to go to bizarre lengths. The more traditional means of artifice are well documented. There’s a reason that they call it media (middle, medium).

Imagination Unmoored

I like it when art becomes it’s own medium of response to itself, rather than leaving it to prose. I have always like Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” and Don McLean’s “Vincent” (YouTube | Wikipedia). But Robbie Dingo’s recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night in Second Life, making a video of the process of creation, then setting it to Don McLean’s song does it all one better (Au, Wagner James, “Remake the Stars,” New World Notes, 18 July 2007).

Schema of the arts and sciences aside, I like this for what is suggests for the future of virtual worlds. Hitherto our imaginations have been stunted by continuous exposure to the narrow Newtonian world of the macroscopic everyday. Witness, for example, what happens when people try to imagine fantastical animals. All that we can come up with is combinations of existing animals: griffins, mermaids, centaurs, dragons, Cerberus, et cetera.

Once we start to live in a regular way in virtual worlds of our own creation, a dynamic will form where each feat of imagining will establish a new norm and a new developmental environment from which each subsequent foray of imagining and generation of imagineer will be capable of going a little further beyond the forms of this world. As we increasingly live in worlds not constrained by the same limits as the material world, our imaginations will become completely unmoored from the forms provided to us by macroscopic nature. The true, autonomous nature of the imagination — throughout all of history shackled by the relentless, overwhelming conditioning of the narrow forms presented to us by dull matter — will be liberated.

And owing to neuroplasticity, inherited or induced, maturing and living in radically different worlds will allow us to develop new modes of being and new understandings. In the future we will live in our dreams and our nightmares. Science has laid the groundwork for our art to become the more fundamental reality. The direction of humanity is a retreat from the material world into a world composed entirely of mind.

Mr. Au mentions Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (IMDB | Wikipedia). I think maybe it’s time to dig out and rewatch an old favorite, Until the End of the World (IMDB | Wikipedia).

Politically, for all of human history the Earth has provided the unified point of reference for all humanity. With a proliferation of possible environments, the hitherto more or less unified character of the human world will gradually degenerate. The dissolution of our political order, multiculturalism, neo-primitivism, the turning away from master narratives and the dawning of the postmodern era are natural consequences of technology.

As Vernor Vinge said of the coming of the singularity, “I can see us becoming weird — before my very eyes” (“My Apocalyptic Vision is Very Narrow,” 13 June 2008).