Thursday 19 April 2012

The relationship between "New Aesthetic" and Computationally Minimal Art

A couple of weeks ago, something called "New Aesthetic" was brought to my attention. It is difficult to find any sort of coherent definition for the idea, but it seems like an umbrella label for a wide variety of visual things that somehow look computational, often in not-so-computational contexts. The main spreader of the meme is apparently a Tumblr blog that collects pictures of things such as pixellated glitches in textiles, real-life voxel sculptures, mugs decorated with website graphics, digitally glitched photographs, satellite images as well as all kinds of other things that evocate suitably futuristic associations.

Despite the profound vagueness of the umbrella term, it is not difficult to notice the general trend it refers to. Just a decade ago, a computationally inspired real-life object would have been a unique novelty item, but nowadays there are such things all around us. I mentioned an aspect of this trend back in 2010 in my article on Computationally Minimal Art, where I noticed that "retrocomputing esthetics" is not just thriving in its respective subcultures (such as demoscene or chip music scene) but popping up every now and then in mainstream contexts as well -- often completely without the historical or nostalgic vibe usually associated with retrocomputing.

As the concept of "New Aesthetic" overlaps a lot of my ponderings, I now feel like building some semantics in order to relate the ideas to one another:

"New Aesthetics", as I see it, is a rather vague umbrella term that contains a wide variety of things but has a major subset that could be called "Computationally Inspired".

"Computationally Inspired" is anything that brings the concepts and building blocks of the "digital world" into non-native contexts. T-shirts, mugs and other real-life objects decorated with big-pixel art or website imagery are obvious examples. In a wide sense, even anything that makes the basic digital building blocks more visible within a digital context might be "Computationally Inspired" as well: big-pixel low-fi computer graphics on a new high-end computer, for example.

"Computationally Minimal" is anything that uses a very low amount of computational resources, often making the digital building blocks such as pixels very discernible. Two years ago, I defined "Computationally Minimal Art" as follows: "[A] form of discrete art governed by a low computational complexity in the domains of time, description length and temporary storage. The most essential features of Computationally Minimal Art are those that persist the longest when the various levels of complexity approach zero."

We can see that Computationally Inspired and Computationally Minimal have a lot of overlap but neither is a subset of another. Cross-stitch patterns are CM almost by definition as they have a limited number of discrete "pixels" with a limited number of different colors, but they are not CI unless they depict something that comes from the "computer world", such as video game characters. On the other hand, a sculpture based on a large amount of digitally corrupted data is definitely CI but falls out of the definition of CM due to the size of the source data.

What CM and CI and especially their intersection have in common, however, is the tendency of showing off discrete digital data and/or computational processes, which gives them a lot of esthetic similarity. In CI, this is usually a goal in itself, while in CM, it is most often a side-effect of the related goal of low computational complexity. In either case, however, the visual result often looks like big-pixel graphics. This has caused confusion among many New Aesthetic bloggers who use adjectives such as "retro", "8-bit" or "nostalgic" when referring to this phenomenon, when what they are witnessing is just a way how the essence of digital technology tends to manifest visually.

There has been a lot of on-line discussion revolving New Aesthetic during the past month, and a lot of it seems like pseudo-intellectual, reality-detached mumbo-jumbo to me. In order to gain some insight and substance, I would like to recommend all the bloggers to take serious a look into the demoscene and other established forms of computer-centric expression. You may also find out that a lot of this stuff is actually not that new to begin with, it has just been gaining a lot of new momentum recently.