The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.”, said Bruce Sterling. James Bridle explains in great detail, here.
I am not into testosterone-driven Sci-Fi aesthetic, and personally hate when things get called New, like that, capitalised. But there is something in here that I’m really, really, really interested in, and it’s not how people make paintings that re-create the pixelated effect. Quite the opposite.
If you are interested in theatre, I think you will be able to follow easily.
I am interested in how reality, as in ‘the non-virtual’, the non-televised, the non-mediated, seems to be becoming a bit of a rare, endangered thing: because it’s getting aestheticised, it’s becoming self-referential and the material of art, exactly the way in which postmodernism made mass media self-referential and material of art.
This is very clearly happening in these videos: Angela Trimbur is not so much in an airport or laundromat, as in a ‘real airport’ and a ‘real laundromat’. Calling her a ‘one-person flashmob’, as some media have, is incredibly accurate, because these works/events share the same ambivalence as to what is a report of what, as a classical flashmob does. Does a flashmob happen in a city square, or on Youtube? Compare the two in these ways: length of existence, meaningful exposure and feedback, targeted audience, number of audience members, and performative attention towards audience experience. Is the performer engaging with the passersby, or smiling at the camera?
Angela Trimbur is, very clearly, smiling at the camera, which is what really flattens these videos for me as expressions of any kind of genuine joie de vivre or public expression. The ‘public’ here is more of a prop, a sign of a public – a little bit like the public and the public space function in Candid Camera. They are a reference to reality, which plays a part in the joke. The joke exists on Vimeo, or on YouTube.
Or, more precisely, it’s not that she isn’t in public space. She is. It’s just that we have a reversal here of the normal, pre-2005 understanding of physical reality as unmediated, and a media representation as a mediated representation of reality. Before 2005 (roughly, that’s when Facebook started gaining traction, I seem to remember), WWW and chat and BBSs and blogs were places where we imitated interaction AS PER physical reality: LOL and ROFLMAO and *hugz* and smiley faces are all references to physical reality. Before 2005, when we quoted a film character in a spoken, physically co-present conversation, it was postmodern and ironic and meta.
These videos represent fully the reversal that has happened since. Angela Trimbur isn’t referencing a film scene in physical reality; not even Candid Camera. She is referencing a concept of a real-life occurrence (‘dance like nobody’s watching’), which she enacts (so that it’s really happening) in real physical space (because that’s the punchline: the people around her), but the whole thing only comes together via social media. The apparatus that is US society + planet Earth is just a semantically laden set for a product called ‘intended viral video’. The meaningful social interaction is not happening in the laundromat, mall nor airport, but in the advancing red loading bars of millions of computers. (This is why my favourite is the Laundromat video: in it, Angela Trimbur is much more involved with the real space and people, than with the video camera.) And semantically, these videos are a response not to the urban alienation of the human race (or some such thing), but to the urban idiot savant trope of sit-com and reality TV canon, of the Flight of the Conchords.
The videos would lose the punchline if they were filmed in a studio, not in real space, but the logic of the punchline is not that of engaging with reality (as opposed to studio/fiction), but that of overly literalizing a trope: exactly like the humour of Flight of the Conchords.
The same thing is happening in performance, as things that used to be non-art increasingly become re-framed as aesthetic experiences: games and playing, human interaction and kindness, confessions and sharing secrets, and fear. All of this is now a normal part of either theatre, live art, or social gaming as represented by artists such as The Society of Coney. The point is not that we’re merely aestheticising reality, but that it appears to happen because reality (of this kind, anyway) is becoming scarce.
It is also happening in basic youth culture, as ‘real’ things such as clothes, food, jobs, communication and identity become seen as expressions of taste, style and epoch (the hipsterising and vintagefying of everyday life), rather than the simple collateral of living.
This is definitely a reflection of a scarcity of a certain kind of reality, just like the introduction of ‘conflict resolution’ as an academic matter in Australian primary and high schools is a reflection of the fact that Australian children don’t play in an unsctructured fashion in numbers high enough anymore to learn how to solve conflicts by themselves (true fact: heard from an educator on conflict resolution). It isn’t my intention to be alarmist just because I grew up before Facebook. But these kinds of changes are insidious because they’re so imperceptible, and very hard to reverse because it will take a long time to understand what their consequences have been. And then it will be too late – just like we never voted on whether to have an obesity pandemic or not.
Finally, nothing mentioned here is automatically true for Germany, Malaysia, or any place in which people live in relatively compact cities, because compact cities force direct socialisation, and direct socialisation is an engine of reality. But they are widely true for Anglophone cities, and all places in which young people are largely third-generation middle-and-outer suburbanites: citizens of places that gravitate towards no immediate city centre.