Children of the Drone
Vanity Fair, June 2013
Marcel Duchamp had his urinal. Andy Warhol had his soup can. James Bridle has his . . . drone? With his first major U.S. museum exhibition opening this week at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art & Design, the young British artist is spearheading a conceptual-art movement—“the New Aesthetic”—through Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, as he tries to capture technology’s strange effects on society.
The South by Southwest Interactive Festival, held each March in Austin, Texas, has become the Internet’s Sundance, an annual showcase for whatever the Silicons—Valley and Alley—can cook up, and the place where the press goes to chew on it. Ever since Twitter blew up there in 2007, the old-media publicity machine has been churning hard, with carefully orchestrated product launches and heavy competition for the attention of the biggest-name journalists. Hollywood shows up to help: last year Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire came to support the photo-sharing app Mobli, in which they had both invested—only the latest sign that the festival had lost its funky roots, inevitably changed by money and age.
Which made it all the more startling when the biggest thing to break out last year involved neither publicists nor marketing plans, and presented nothing, in fact, to buy or sell. All it offered was a new way of understanding our screen-obsessed lives, packaged into a putative conceptual movement that had a provocative clarity that propelled it through the valleys of the Internet—far beyond South by Southwest’s tech scene—to art, fashion, media, and marketing. It had a symbol: the drone. An André Breton–style ringleader: a young English artist named James Bridle. And a name: the New Aesthetic.
The birth announcement of the New Aesthetic was a blog post written by Bridle on May 6, 2011. But its breakthrough moment came one afternoon early in 2012, when Bridle and his friend and collaborator Einar Sneve Martinussen sat in his East London studio, contemplating a hobbyist’s model of an MQ-1 Predator drone. They recognized it not only as an epochal weapon but also as the most dramatic and violent representation of a far broader condition. “It embodies so many of the qualities of the network,” Bridle said. “Sight at a distance, action at a distance, and it’s invisible.” The drone epitomized the way we live now, as people who do not so much log on and log off the Internet but effectively live within it. “I started thinking about it as an emanation of the network itself—not just a surveillance platform, but a dark mirror,” Bridle recalls.
Yet what was it, practically speaking? Bridle wanted “to touch the cold metal of it, to measure oneself against it.” But except for the occasional appearance at an air show, drones appeared mostly in blurry photos. How big was the thing? What would it be like to stand next to it? In the parking lot outside the studio in the tech-heavy London neighborhood of Shoreditch, Bridle and Martinussen paced out the dimensions and then traced it on the ground in chalk: a drone shadow. The invisible made visible. They called it Drone Shadow 001 and put pictures of it on Flickr, the photo-sharing site.
For Bridle, that afternoon of modest creation came on the heels of nine months of pointed observation. Since that first blog post announcing his intentions, he had been gathering images, quotes, and videos that testified to what he saw as a new way of understanding the world, a “new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean,” he wrote. Its primary format soon became a Tumblr blog, and its guiding principle was that we could no longer clearly see, much less understand, the effects of the networked world we’ve built.
“We’re writing things that we can’t read,” Kevin Slavin, a professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab, says. “We’ve produced systems of such complexity that they’ve all been written by humans but they are totally illegible to any human on earth, and yet their effects are quite tangible.” The New Aesthetic points at those effects, with trepidation. In the process it becomes slippery and occasionally difficult to pin down, even for Bridle himself. Think of the New Aesthetic as a meme of memes: a found art movement (but, confusingly, not a movement of found art), evolving even as it is being defined.
The “aesthetic” referred to Bridle’s preoccupation with the visible artifacts of the network, the identifiable places and moments where the digital erupts into the physical. He posted dresses patterned in pixels, camouflage that evades facial recognition, and a map of the places most densely covered by Wikipedia entries. A more sinister category of phenomena soon appeared on the Tumblr: the roving stare of Google Street View cars; stock-trading algorithms that responded to market panics they themselves had created; pilots in Nevada who killed Taliban in Afghanistan. In Bridle’s mind, “the New Aesthetic” was not an art movement or an artwork but a collection of noticed things. It was no coincidence that the medium of Tumblr itself suddenly seemed very New Aesthetic: an endless scroll that others would then “reblog,” thereby reconstituting it in their own way.
The New Aesthetic had a healthy following not only within Bridle’s London tech world but also among museum curators, drone-watchers, and political journalists—from MoMA to CNN. Next week, an exhibition of Bridle’s work will open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. “It’s really nice to see people looking for what’s next again,” cheered one early New Aesthetic fan, Warren Ellis, from his blog. “I think it really is something distinct, something you can sort of get your arms around—not just, you know, a bunch of cool-looking stuff,” wrote Robin Sloan, a self-described “media inventor” and author of the novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.“I find it quite beautiful because it’s a group effort to try and describe the coming together of the physical and the digital—which is the dimension where we will live the most in the future,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design and director of research and development, at the Museum of Modern Art.
By the summer of 2011, the Tumblr was attracting attention, and Bridle was ready to bring in fresh voices for the New Aesthetic and expand its audience. He was also looking for an excuse to return to South by Southwest, the key gathering for this corner of the Internet. He organized a panel discussion called “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices.” It brought together Joanne McNeil, at the time an editor at Rhizome, a digital-arts organization; Ben Terrett, a preternaturally talented designer and Bridle’s former studio-mate in London; Aaron Straup Cope, a digital-mapping savant, formerly of Flickr and now at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum; and Russell Davies, a former adman and general online mischief-maker, who had helped run Wieden & Kennedy’s ad campaign for Microsoft during the agency’s late-90s heyday and been a mentor to Bridle. “We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing,” the description promised, “the Gods-eye view of satellites,” “the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV.” What it didn’t say was that the New Aesthetic was a movement.
On the final morning of the festival a crowd filled the ornate ballroom of the historic Driskill Hotel, where, as a prop, Cope built a drone. It was made of foam blocks as if it had been pixelated and was improbably large, with a wingspan as wide as a king-size bed. He and Bridle suspended it from a rainbow of balloons, paraded beneath it through the hotel lobby, and parked it beside the dais. On the screen behind them, they projected a video of Slavin, with whom they were all friendly, nodding in an endless loop—a joke of a compliant panel member but also an invocation of Big Brother.
The audience unwittingly played its part, with every head bowed over a laptop screen, and listened as the panelists told a consistent story of a present overwhelmed by the not-always-intended effects of the technological world we’d created. The five panelists shared Moonrakerclips, Pynchon quotes, and McLuhan-esque aphorisms: All our metaphors are broken. McNeil put the New Aesthetic in art-historical context. Bridle quoted Julian Assange: “We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” They took no questions. When it was over, they paraded the drone back to the bungalow they’d rented for the week and jumped into the pool with it.
But just about then came the first indication that a nerve had been struck. The science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who had been in the audience, blogged about the panel by collecting the tweets about it: “The New Aesthetic involves giant balloons, evidently,” said one. “Also, one of the speakers appears to be a floating head.” Sterling saved his true response for a 5,000-word commentary, posted three weeks later on his blog. “The New Aesthetic is a rather old, and hearteningly traditional, story about a regional, generational cluster of creative people who are perceiving important stuff that other, older, and dumber people don’t get quite yet,” Sterling wrote. “It’s a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society.” And Bridle himself is the “André Breton–style Pope of The New Aesthetic”—a characterization that served as a dog-whistle alert to a thick seam of art, fashion, and media commentators.
The responses came instantly and in torrents. Within weeks there was an online debate at the Creators Project; a live New Aesthetic “Death Match” at Long Island City’s Flux Factory; service-oriented “What Is the New Aesthetic?” primers; an “Is Fashion Ready for a New Aesthetic?” warning at the Business of Fashion conference; a snarky “The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder” essay on The Atlantic’s Web site; a linking by the science-fiction writer Madeline Ashby of the New Aesthetic’s obsession with surveillance to the male gaze; and an analysis of its politics (or lack thereof) by an Emirati arts journal.
The kerfuffle was a shock. The Internet Age was finally getting an art movement to call its own, a viable successor to the way futurism responded to the age of speed, Pop art to the age of the advertisement, and Abstract Expressionism to postwar American power. Except, in classic Internet fashion, the New Aesthetic wasn’t just a new thing but a new kind of thing.
‘Suddenly everyone who thinks it’s a movement either wants to be part of it or wants to destroy it,” Bridle reflected one recent afternoon, sitting behind a makeshift desk in his new, windowless studio in a converted factory in the Cambridge Heath neighborhood of London. “Bruce describing it as a movement locks it into an existing idea of historical processes, but there’s no such thing as avant-gardes anymore. That’s such a ridiculous idea. That’s an art-historical construct that just doesn’t apply anymore. But it leads to that idea of there being avant-garde figures that are ahead of everything else. But there’s not. It’s just me, looking at this stuff, and going, ‘Have you seen this? Have you actually seen it? Have you really paid attention and thought this stuff through? Because I’m trying to, and it’s amazing!’”
Bridle has dark hair, fair skin, and a foxlike expression of wry amusement. At 32 he still comes off as an English-public-school lad gone slightly punk, with gray jeans and combat boots, a black sweatshirt, and a pierced tragus. On top of a large bookshelf behind him, sitting like a sculpture, was a surveillance camera, its cable dangling; on the shelf below it, a stuffed Wenlock, the London Olympics’ mascot, its one eye standing in for another camera. The room’s lack of windows at first seemed like an economy but soon came to feel like a shield. “My Faraday cage,” Bridle said, jokingly. It was a new space, and a departure for Bridle: a move from Shoreditch to Cambridge Heath—the London equivalent of the Lower East Side to Williamsburg—which he acknowledged to be a shift from his earlier work in the tech world, primarily as a digital-books consultant to publishers, toward art. In the two years since he introduced the New Aesthetic, the concept had gone from a collection of found images to a cottage industry, nipped at by gallerists and marketing consultants, roared at by bloggers and media theorists. A pair of curators was due soon for a studio visit. Bridle’s walls were covered exclusively with photographs of drones.
The germ of what would become the New Aesthetic had gestated among a group of English technologists over the years, and this group had in turn shaped Bridle. They had a salon, a Friday breakfast organized by Russell Davies, the former adman on the South by Southwest panel, at the back table of a Shoreditch greasy spoon called the Shepherdess. It had spawned from a homemade conference called “Interesting,” deliberately conceived by Davies as a low-clost, low-key ted. (He and Bridle had met when Bridle spoke there in 2008, on the subject of “cooking with booze.”) What distinguished the group from its counterparts in San Francisco and New York was a shared sensibility—uniquely British, it seems—that technology is not just something to make a billion from but something to prod and question.
“We always think that, as Orwell said, Fascism cannot succeed in Britain because it would be laughed at,” says Matt Jones, a regular at the Shepherdess, until April, when he became interaction design director at Google Creative Lab in New York. “I think that what terrifies us about some of the technological implications is that a machine can’t be laughed at. You can’t satirize Google. That’s what spawns new expressions like some of James’s work. It is a very particularly British reaction to the new American century of technology”: technology is something Americans do to us.
“The New Aesthetic, if you were to really boil it down, is a reflection on the inventions of the war on terror,” Jones adds. “Whether it’s total information awareness, social-graph analysis, data mining, autonomous vehicles, surveillance technology—wherever the last $100 billion was spent you get an algal bloom around the rusted pieces. We can both revel in it and recoil from it.”
Last October, Bridle painted Drone Shadow 002 outside a gallery of the Istanbul Design Biennial, with the help of a Turkish road crew. Seen from above on a sidewalk outside a church, it was an image that could be shared, a product of the network reflected in the network. Bridle followed it up with a project called Dronestagram. Working from the locations of drone strikes compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, he would find the town on Google Earth, guess at a precise location for the strike, and then post a satellite image of the place on the photo-sharing site Instagram. “Foreign wars and foreign bodies have always counted for less, but the technology that was supposed to bring us closer together is used to obscure and obfuscate,” he wrote. Dronestagram used it to bring us closer. It was picked up by CNN, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Time, and French and Dutch TV. Here were the darkest ramifications of the New Aesthetic—a portent of all that we’ve given over to machines. As a collection of found images that becomes a work unto itself, it slides in behind Duchamp or Warhol, seizing on the truth and beauty of what is most terrifying in our age.
It marks a shift in our understanding of technology, not as a single object or Web site, but as an all-encompassing structure unlike anything before. “We’re still unsure of why we built it and what we’re supposed to do with it,” Bridle says. “It’s the thing we’re living inside, and I’m keeping an eye on it.”