Nostalgia for the New

Here’s something I wrote for COMMONPLACE, a version of Fulcrum published at this years Venice Biennale.

Ironically for something positioning itself on the bleeding edge of newness, the New Aesthetic reeks of something suspiciously like nostalgia. It’s intoxicating vapours contain soothing notes of antiquated art historical ideas including the quaint notion of aesthetic movements and a belief in linear cultural progression. And that’s even before we even get to its content, which to anyone whose been around the cultural block, seem strangely familar.

But that’s ok. After all who in their right mind didn’t love JoDi, Antirom, Gerald van der Kaap’s Blind Rom, the Aphex Twin’s bleeps or any of those other early digital adopters playing with html, actionscripts and animated gifs and native digitality. None of that was new even then, just plain old Modernist avant guard sensibility played out through the now anachronistic term ‘new media’.

We can look back on that moment with fondness. It was a time when the digital realm still seemed to offer an alternative to the structures of the physical world, still seemed a realm full of speculative possibility. This world fast lost its speculative role and became instead a magnifying mirror of the old world.

Colonised by corporations, the digital was redefined by the Apple-Google-Facebook axis of privatisation. Algorithms became so naturalised into our world that economic regions can’t escape their logics, and the remote presence of surveillance and military technologies have become entirely familiar.

The mistakes, mistakes, misfits hoarded by New Aestheticists act like fragments of evidence collated and tagged into a never-ending tumblr scroll. Their accumulation acts to convince us, like photographs of the supernatural, that there is something beyond or behind the gleaming skin of the digital world.

Perhaps that’s why the New Aesthetic’s powerful nostalgia resonates now. It tells us things we already know but have become immune to. It’s pursuit of kinks and glitches, frags and ghosts of digital culture are classic Brechtian alienation. Seeking cracks in the seamless surface of contemporary media, it resensitises us to the strange and unnatural nature of our networked digital culture. In revealing glimpses of mechanisms, armatures and codes it flashes an Achilles heel, a chink in the armour of the impenetrable fortress of digital corporate culture.

The accidental nostaliga of the New Aesthetic may have productive qualties, yet its fear of nostalgia is also a weakness. Especially when its its own sensibility is so plainly nostalgic for those we might retroactively dub Old-New Aestheticists. We see, for example, resonaces of Warhol’s pursuit of the glitch in the reproductive machines of image making. We feel echoes of Kraftwerk’s outlines of the pleasure and alienation of totalitarian Computerworld that still feel as close to the future as one can get this side of the laws of general relativity.

To categorise nostalgia as a conservative force is so … old fashioned. Futurism isn’t what it used to be either. Or rather, for us, the future can’t be what it was because the present is far more complicated than science fiction ever imagined it could be. Defaulting into old fashioned futures – however high tech their aesthetic – is a more dangerous form of nostalgia because it blinds us to the real strangeness of contemporary culture.

Digital technologies have loosened the ties of space and time. Geography, image and identity are recast as possibilities rather than plain fact. Cut loose from traditional notions of authenticity and authorship, digital culture brings everything into potential promiscuous proximity. Everything becomes hermaphrodilically fertile, doped up on Gonadotropins, everything the site for a new genomic breach. Out of these swamps of digitised nostalgia rise fresh beasts blinking into the contemporary light. The broadening reach between ‘this’ and ‘that’ coupled with ever incresing speed of reconfiguration is the trope of the digital contemporary. The New Aesthetic is just another pool in this infinatly wide swampland, just another fastbred cultural cycle.

Architecture more than any other creative discipline clings to a nostalgic form of futurism. Formally, technologically and sociologically, it has a stunted relationship to the full spectrum of contemporary culture. For architecture, nostalgia is still framed by Modernisms roots in Futurism. Its internal monologue is charachterised by binary debates of tradition and progression.

Sadly for both camps neither are possible. Instead we find ourselves caught in the pretzel logics that charachterise the early 21st century. That which wishes to be nostalgic pastiche is where we find unalloyed modernity, an image of the past hung on armatures of high tech fabrication and sophisticated financial instruments. That which dreams of manifesting the future is mired in a historical fiction of the future. Unable to create the future, we are equally frustrated in attempts to manufacture the past real newness might emerge out of radical nostalgia at the uncomfortable intersections of technology and history.

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  1. […] he wrote for COMMONPLACE, a version of Fulcrum, published at this years (2012) Venice Biennale. Therein Mr. Jacob suggested that New Aesthetic ”reeks of something suspiciously like […]

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