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.

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Secretary Clinton: Let Me Show You the World in My Eyes

Or perhaps the correct reference for that last post was Depeche Mode rather than Andy Warhol.

Let me take you on a trip
Around the world and back
And you won’t have to move
You just sit still

Now let your mind do the walking
And let my body do the talking
Let me show you the world in my eyes

Hard Truths about Concrete

Zachary Korb, Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1 October 2006

In 1992 the Max Protech Gallery in New York had an exhibit of the concrete furniture work of Scott Burton. Chaise Longings, the catalogue of the exhibit, included an essay, “Concrete and Burton”, by Peter Schjeldahl (at the time an art critic for The Village Voice). It came to my attention when the following section was excerpted in Harper’s Magazine (published under the title, “Hard Truths about Concrete,” vol. 287, no. 1721, October 1993, pp. 28-30).

It is really more of a prose poem, or a paean to concrete than an essay of analysis or criticism. As an enthusiast of urbanism and the human built environment, I too have a considerable eros for concrete, and often find myself reciting lines from this passage to myself as I gaze out the train window rumbling about the city (usually the eastern branch of the red line).

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela, 26 August 2008

1. Concrete

Concrete is the most careless, slovenly stuff — until it is committed, when it becomes fanatically adamant. Liquid rock, concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care. Pour concrete out on the ground and it will start to puddle and spread, in rapture to gravity, but then will think better of it: enough spreading! It heaps up on itself in lazy glops, sensual as a frog.

Concrete takes no notice of what is done with it, flowing into any container, and the containers one makes for it, the molds and forms, must be fashioned with laborious care, strong and tight, because concrete is heavy and entirely feckless. Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is the slut, the gigolo, of materials. Every other material — wood, clay, metal, even plastic — has self-respect, a limit to what it will suffer to have done with it, and at the same time is responsive within that limit, supple in the ways it consents to be used. Concrete is stupid and will do anything for anyone, without protest or pleasure, so long as the person indulges its mania to lie down.

Let concrete set, however, and sense the difference. Concrete hardens in the shape of whatever container received its flow, its momentary sensual abandon in thoughtless submission to half-loved gravity. Once it has set, what a difference! Concrete becomes adamant, fanatical, a Puritan, a rock, Robespierre. It declares like no other material the inevitability, the immortality — the divinity! — of the shape it comprises, be the shape a glopped heap on the ground or a concert hall, ridiculous or sublime.

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong, 31 May 2007

Concrete that has set will have no thought, no monomaniacal obsession until the end of time, except this shape. No other material — not brick, not wood, not the very stone blocks of the Great Pyramids forgets itself to such an extent. Bricks planks of wood, and stone blocks whisper from their built configurations of their willingness to be disassembled and to become something else. Whorish but ironic plastic holds back from a lasting passion for the form it takes, murmuring of its readiness if given heat, just some lovely heat, to melt into other forms. Likewise metal and glass. Not concrete once concrete has set.

Set concrete insists, insists, insists. It insists on the rightness, permanence, godliness of the form into which it flowed so carelessly. You must smash set concrete to bits if you would shut up the voice of its insistence, and even then the smashed bits will lie around insistently piping. I was in Berlin early in 1990 and remember a thousand hammers banging away at the Wall, banging out “die, die, die!” The concrete of the awful thing was shrieking back “wall, wall, wall!” It took a long time for the hammers to win the argument, and even then the shattered corpse would not give in. I brought a handful of fragments home, and the ones that retained any flat surface still shrill “wall” in tiny voices, totalitarian for eternity.

There is something inappropriate, not quite right, about the notion of “working” concrete, finely finishing it, making its forms true, smooth, and pristine. It seems insulting to concrete’s gross strength and simplemindedness, mocking concrete as one might a rough farmworker by forcing fancy evening dress on him. Unlike the farmworker, however, concrete is unmockable because it is impervious. Go ahead and make fun of concrete. You might as well. Concrete will never notice.

Concrete has no feelings to hurt. It does have feelings, as we know, but they are adamantine, fanatic, and untouchable by anything. Concrete is solipsistic. By contrast, clay is touchy, wood is as woundable as the flesh it is, and brick has a yeoman worker’s pride, stolid and prickly. All have good reason to fear misuse and to exude sadness when misused. But kick concrete as much as you like, all you will hurt is your toe.

Concrete is among the world’s best exercise devices for unrequited loving. You may love and serve it until your heart is worn out and be assured of no responsiveness, not a quiver in return. No loathing, even. Nothing! Concrete is like Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, only colder. Coarse and stupid beyond compare, it combines these qualities with the froideur of a goddess, of Pallas Athena! It is a dominatrix, blind, deaf, and dumb, dumb beyond anything. You have to be a masochist to love concrete, enjoying the strength that your own capacity to love displays when the loved one is a pitiless idiot.

I too have a piece of the Berlin Wall, brought back for me by a friend who was visiting at the time. One side was part of the flat exterior of the wall. On the other side, two inches into the wall from the face, is an impression left by the concrete’s envelopment of a shaft of rebar.

Photographs “Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong” and “High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela” courtesy of Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc.; “Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, MN” courtesy of Zachary Korb; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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.

How to Make a Mean Martini

Enough of all this who makes a mean martini and who doesn’t shit. It’s three (maybe four) ingredients. If you can’t make a good one it’s because you’re an unschooled lout.

Don’t get me wrong: I exceeded myself just last week hitting color, aroma and blend, but per my last post, it’s not about making a perfect one — in a pluralistic world no such thing exists — it’s only about the minimal qualification of avoiding bad ones — and not to get me wrong again, I hold this level of ineptitude against a bar, keeping in my head a running list of places who fail even this minimal standard.

Besides, most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store, not while attending to the bottles, shakers and glassware. What’s the right ratio of gin / vodka to vermouth? Anything from the apocryphal “glance across the room” up to four- or five-to-one. How much olive juice is tolerable in a dirty martini? Judging from the shit-talk any ol’ amount you prefer. Choose high quality ingredients, meet the minimum standard, and the rest is a matter of taste — for which it is appropriately widely known there is no accounting.

So let’s all stop posing as if mixing cocktails is like laying microchip circuitry or calculating digits of pi. It’s an improvisational art.

Millennial Spirituality

I have been saying that the fastest growing religion in the United States is not the non-denominational, evangelical mega-churches, or Mormonism or any other such easily identifiable thing, but the hazy category of “spiritual but not religious.” Today the front page of USA Today brings more grist for the mill (Grossman, Cathy Lynn, “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘More Spiritual Than Religious’,” 27 April 2010):

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows.

If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”

Among the 65% who call themselves Christian, “many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only,” Rainer says. “Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith.”

The line about seeing churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships was a nice gag, but more evocative for me would be to say that if the trend continues, we will soon start to see churches in the U.S. closing as quickly as they are today in Europe. Declining religious sentiment is an aspect of modernization and what’s amazing is that religion has managed to persist with such strength so long into the age of scientific reason.

In addition to the point about “spiritual but not religious”, this survey also makes Daniel Dennett’s point that belief in belief is far more widespread than actual belief. There are a significant number of people who self-identify as “Christian” when asked, but don’t attend church, don’t ever pray, don’t read the Bible, don’t think “what would Jesus do”, or “God’s watching” in their moral considerations, don’t take religious identity into consideration in forming their interpersonal associations and don’t talk about god to other people.

Some sociologists need to get on this “spiritual but not religious” category. What do people who so identify believe? I have no idea. I imagine that being so ill-defined it’s a bewildering hodge-podge of belief.

I always joke that “spiritual but not religious” means you like green tea and yoga. But maybe there’s no accident in these two tropes. The future belongs to Asia and “spiritual but not religious” might be an early manifestation of Asian culture beginning to exert the kind of global influence that Western culture used to enjoy.

Is “spiritual but not religious” a sort of scientific illiteracy? There are all these people for whom religion has no practical consequence in their life, but find the alternative unpalatable? I’ve known a number of people who believe in what I call a “prime mover” god: the whole big bang story sounds too implausible so they invoke god to get the story rolling, but then he drops out as a narratively compelling actor.

I know plenty of people who are essentially atheists but owing to the stigma of the label, simply won’t take the final step of self-identification as such.

Is it a bad faith version of Pascal’s wager, where people think of non-declaration as a hedge: If I don’t say anything, god won’t know and I may still be eligible for the afterlife should I turn out to have been wrong.

Do the “spiritual but not religious” respond to religion in politics? I imagine that to be “spiritual but not religious” means rejection of religion as ideology and dogma in favor of religious sentiment. Political invocations of religion tend to be religion as ideology and dogma at its most strident. But many of these people continue to identify as Christians. Is their identification sufficiently deep for them to respond to the identity group politics of religion?