Daisy Alioto on the new new aesthetics.
Anosmia. This is what it is called to lose your sense of smell, as happened to me recently. Scents became the suggestion of scents. It reminded me of being a teenager again and the chlorine that burned through my nostrils after a long day lifeguarding and stayed with me on the way home and the walk up my parents’ driveway, where I could hear the chirps from the woods and vernal pools but couldn’t smell the wet night air.
While I was sick, I read about a company that has created “perfume for the metaverse,” a perfume that only exists in the digital realm. And yet, it appeals to me, because I like to describe things that do not exist. Ekphrasis and anosmia are strange bedfellows, but in this case perfectly suited. I tried not to think what would happen if I could never smell again and avoided checking if the perfume I ordered was out for delivery. Instead, I listened to a playlist created for my perfume by the company that sells it. I was thinking about how Schrödinger's Cat would look the same to a blind woman whether the box was open or not. But if there was violin music coming from the box she might feel moved to describe a cat that doesn’t exist.
In middle school I was voted “most likely to invent a new style of art.” I am still waiting to invent it. But in the meantime, I like to think this small superlative — long forgotten by everyone else in my 8th grade class — has given me a gentler view of art that is emerging, unusual, ugly, or just plain weird.
In coping with the rise of NFT art, others have found it useful to look to historical precedent for interpretation: Duchamp, Yves Klein, June Paik. Then there is the list of unsurprising entrants into the contemporary NFT game: Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, the estate of the late Andy Warhol. All of this is useful to explain what exactly is going on. For me? I would rather explain it all through the lens of 2013, the summer I spent in DC. A summer full of things that weren’t as they seemed, that set me on the path to being an internet critic (I think). But before I tell that story I need to back up and ask: what is internet criticism now?
In 2019, I wrote a piece for Playboy about the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, the study of the way our brains process Art. Periodically, I get notifications from Academia dot edu about adjacent topics. Rarely do I open these emails, but in early August the subject line "What Are Aesthetic Emotions?” compelled me into an article of the same name published in the Psychological Review. And because I like aesthetics and I like emotions, I began to skim through.
In order to offer their theoretical framework for aesthetic emotions, the authors of the paper must distinguish these aesthetic emotions from ordinary emotions, which often go by the same names.
“Like all aesthetic emotions that are linguistically derived from ordinary emotion terms (further examples being suspense, surprise, interest, boredom), being moved can be an ‘everyday’ emotion, an art-elicited emotion in the broader sense, and, to the extent that it directly predicts aesthetic appreciation, an aesthetic emotion in the narrower sense.”
In other words, these non-aesthetic (ordinary) emotions like “boredom” that happen to share the same name with aesthetic emotions — a feeling of boredom when viewing a work of art — can still correlate with the aesthetic one. “The aesthetically evaluative dimension comes not as an alternative to, or instead of, the non-aesthetic meaning of that emotion term, but on top of it.”
And so I thought, what if the emotions that determine how we feel on the internet are distinct from the emotions of the same name that govern our offline lives? And what if those emotions on the internet are heightened by the ordinary emotions we are feeling? If that is the case, doesn’t internet criticism in a sense have to speak to both levels of emotion? Just like being bored in an art museum is not the fault of the Whistler in a room you haven’t yet entered, being sad online is not necessarily the result of the stream of content flowing past. There is a duality to the emotions felt online and those felt off. However, there is a third level: the integrative one, combining the two. The level at which one can experience a natural disaster and read the thoughts of other people experiencing it in real time. Or the gaming of algorithms to curate a “vibe” that heightens the mood one is already cultivating. Internet criticism is increasingly about the integrative.
In order to designate what exists and what does not we are forced to put things into the categories of real and unreal. “The Internet is not real life” was once a far more popular refrain before a quarantine that required business and social lives to move online. Still, there is semantically an online and an off. The sun rises and the sun sets, but when it sets, it sets for us and rises for someone else. So in the collective sense there is no “off.” If you tell someone to “touch grass” and they decide to touch grass in the metaverse, well what are you going to do about it?
Recently, while sitting at the bar of a restaurant that I wasn’t supposed to be eating at, I happened to glimpse through the window a friend who I fell out of touch with. The falling out of touch hadn’t been my choice, but I pulled the final lever (the unfollow button). She distanced herself from me because she was suffering. And then I distanced myself from her because I could no longer watch her suffer. The truth is, I was protecting myself from my own narcissistic impulse to rescue others. The help that she needed I would not be able to provide, but a few years ago I still would have tried and then raged privately about her inability to reciprocate and turned myself into a martyr. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve grown up.
I ran onto the sidewalk and called her name after her. It was hot, and without thinking I gathered her thick hair into a ponytail with my hand and lifted it off of her neck while we embraced. She told me that she was moving across the country in three days.
When I returned to the bar my friends asked me whether I had been crying and, to my astonishment, I had been. The tears were automatic, too much poured into one vessel, as we stood there on the sidewalk like two ends of the same string. I noticed that her tears drew her eyelashes into sparkling points and I wondered if my lashes were doing that too.
Think what would have happened had I gone to the original restaurant, or not been facing the window when a familiar silhouette walked by. But the truth is, I love(d) her like a sister and I believe I could have sensed her presence even without seeing. “You were brave to run out there,” another friend said. I disagree: seeking closure is equal parts selfish and righteous. I needed a kinder story to tell myself.
I thought about this encounter the other day while I played a point-and-click game called How We Know We’re Alive. The game takes place in a pixelated, autumnal Swedish town from the perspective of a woman reliving the loss of a friendship after a tragic event. The soundtrack of rain is constant and I curled my feet up under my quilt as I played, amazed that the roughly animated trees could feel more elegiac than CGI ones — the sensation of calling after something you have already lost.
What is “internet criticism”? Is it cultural criticism published on the internet — permuted to TikTok, Twitter and newsletters — or is it criticism that treats the internet as its own aesthetic experience, if not object? In my view, these two definitions of internet criticism are increasingly intertwined. There is a level wherein every book review dot com includes the reality of Jeff Bezos’ money, an understanding of what it is like to read long articles on an iPhone screen, and a working knowledge of privacy laws in the EU. In 2021, everything published on the internet is about the internet. Everything published about the internet belongs to the field of aesthetics.
“First of all Daisy, fuck off,” you’re thinking. “Second of all, hundreds of years of literary criticism wasn’t actually criticism of Gutenberg’s press!” To which I say: who said it wasn’t? The internet is part of material culture just as much as the printing press. For hundreds of years the physical reality of books was so obvious that it went without acknowledgement in writing about the stories that they contain. In other words, this reality was fully integrated. And now we have integrated the internet, and we can turn these essential questions to the world to come: the metaverse. Sure, the metaverse is for babies, but babies grow up, so it’s worth asking what will happen when the roles of the reader and the critic have completely reversed. I don’t mean a reversal of power (finances, clout, Goodreads) but of feeling.
The contemporary critic is used to writing for the unfeeling. Criticism, like autofiction, is far less about helping someone form an opinion than it is narrating a sort of emotional experience whether of music, architecture or art. Like attachment that blooms in the imagined conversations we have with those that don’t love us back, the reader is the one who can’t feel. So while they don’t need the critic to form an opinion of say, The Vessel — which they can see themselves and judge on Instagram — the reader does need the critic to interpret both their “ordinary emotions,” and their “aesthetic ones.” Or they did.
The reader was someone you couldn’t get close to because the second you did they moved away. The metaverse changes that. The reader and critic exist on the same plane. In the metaverse, criticism might look more like collaboration or forensic architecture to speak truth to power. There’s also power in becoming the very thing that threatens the critic. In the same way that K-Hole became a consulting firm, the metaverse critic could take on the trappings of FinTech.
Entering the world of NFTs is like being beckoned into the Star Wars cantina, where the height of aesthetic achievement lies somewhere between dive-bar decor and something an ER patient might have stuck in their butt. Every ape, lizard, and stoned duck wants you for their virtual dodgeball team. In the words of Jay Caspian Kang, “What draws them into the space is more of a stubborn refusal to believe anything they’ve been told about the way the world works.” Are they following their ordinary emotions, or their aesthetic ones?
In 2013, I had just graduated from college and moved to DC for a summer internship at NPR. Before my move, I flunked a peripheral vision test so spectacularly that an eye doctor told me I might have brain cancer and refused to fill my contact lens prescription until I did follow up tests. I told him I didn’t have brain cancer, I just didn’t care enough to follow a little beam of light around a black box. I filled my prescription with another doctor.
I was a featured speaker at my college commencement. I spoke before Madeleine Albright. Afterwards, she told her assistant to give me her business card. I kept it in my wallet. I was supposed to get in touch when I got to DC; I was supposed to go places.
My favorite magazine was Vanity Fair. I read an article about a group called The New Aesthetics that cracked my mind open. The New Aesthetics, led by James Bridle, were obsessed with the visual intrusions of the virtual into non-virtual life. The mascot of their theory was the drone. Reading early coverage of The New Aesthetics now is interesting because most of what was said is still true but tonally it is no longer accurate. It was written nearly a decade ago, when it was fashionable and appropriate to write from the perspective that there might still be alternatives to these technological intrusions. But the new new aesthetics, wherever they may be (here, I guess) can only write from the posture that there is no alternative.
I went to see Bridle speak at the Corcoran Gallery, where a life-sized drone “shadow” was traced on the sidewalk outside. I sent messages to Albright’s office through her assistant that I was eager to connect but they went unanswered. I even dressed up and went to her office on one occasion to see if they would let me past reception. I waited at the Starbucks around the corner until they emailed me to say she wouldn’t be in that day and then I went home and cried.
As the kids would say, that was my villain origin story, but by “villain” I just mean going off and living another life. I skipped the last days of my internship to hitch a ride with a cross country caravan of GMO labelling activists, “You have festies, deadheads, and now labelers,” said a friend of the protesters who came to see the caravan off. My boss called me before we were even through the ring of traffic around the city to ask where I was. I told her I was reporting — I had promised the caravan coverage in NPR, which I did manage to pull off at the barest minimum.
They were driving from DC to Seattle but I only went as far as St. Louis. I don’t remember why. The cars had sculptures affixed to their roofs that were meant to look like a cross between vegetables and fish, the “fishiness” of food modified from its original form. As we drove through the midwest, cars slowed down to take in the sight of a giant piece of corn with fins among the fields of corn-sized corn. The unmistakably feminine sugar beet had some of the same buoyant sex appeal as the green M&M. (I rode in a sculpture-less Chevrolet van that alternated between diesel and filtered waste oil from a restaurant in Dupont Circle. It smelled like french fries.)
The trip was activism as storytelling. The vegetables were characters represented in handout comics as the victims of an evil shark robot named Mr. Nosanto. Looking at the sculptures now, I am struck by how much they look like the cartoon avatars of the cryptoverse. We were in that liminal moment between Occupy and the explosion of (white) liberal interest in the climate justice movement. The Fishy Fleet was early to the worship of cute and ugly. If I saw them on OpenSea now I couldn’t help but ape in.
In addition to being the home of the sidewalk drone, Corcoran was also the origin of Borf. In the aughts, the phrase BUSH HATES BORF, visible from the Red Line, became OBAMA HATES BORF. Borf’s name and visage were all around the city, courtesy of the graffiti artist John Tsombikos, a former Corcoran College of Art and Design student. Borf was his dead friend Bobby Fisher. The judge that sentenced Tsombikos to 30 days in prison in 2006 read him for filth in a way that has never left me, "You profess to despise rich people...You profess to despise the faceless, nameless forms of government that oppress. That's what you've become. That's what you are. You're a rich kid who comes into Washington and defaces property because you feel like it. It's not fair. It's not right."
The judge’s statement stayed with me because I know so many people like the caricature she describes. But Borf stayed with me too, because unlike KAWS or Supreme or any other lifestyle brand that iterates on one word or image, Borf spoke straight to my soul.
I have visited my oral surgeon twice in two years. Once for emergency wisdom tooth surgery (two teeth out) and the second time to take out my last remaining wisdom tooth (not an emergency, but I’m a completist). I thought about some conversation topics in advance. When someone is dripping general anesthesia into your arm it only feels polite to go under in the wake of a clever remark. Plus, the surgeon shared an Italian surname with my ex-boyfriend. Both times, the prevailing sense I had upon waking was of our diverging realities, the oral surgeon and I.
“You didn’t have to dress up for me,” he said the first time, complimenting my green dress with the lemons on it. Except they aren’t lemons, they are yellow cherries. “Yellow cherries?” he said skeptically. Who ever heard of such a thing. Now when I picture the dress in my mind I remember them as lemons. The second time I asked him if he liked Umberto Eco. “There are no good Italian writers,” he said. “You should read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino,” I said. Then I woke up in a different room.
Critiquing the architecture of the metaverse can’t be harder than the 55 nonexistent cities described by Calvino’s Marco Polo, “a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.” Speculative architecture exists. Video game criticism is well established. Critics aren’t mourning our power: half the country can call a yellow cherry a lemon and we will still get paid. We’re wondering, who will taste the digital fruit, who will smell it? Maybe we can learn from people who are already familiar with making meaning out of the distance between sensation and aesthetic emotion (like listening to Saturn’s ring gap) — the blind woman evaluating Schrodinger’s box. Or we can muddle along, talking about witchcraft on Clubhouse.
Is the metaverse life through a veil, or something else entirely? We won’t know until we test the limits of ekphrasis. In the months since I had coronavirus, my sense of smell hasn’t completely returned. On the day people said they smelled the first hint of autumn I sucked air through my nostrils, almost, almost… the olfactory equivalent of a word on the tip of your tongue. Perhaps, I thought, I could catch the second or third hint of autumn. I could point-and-click through the pixelated cemetery in a game about friendship and loss and conjure up the smell of woodsmoke and the face of Bobby Fisher. It’s almost enough to make you a true believer. — By Daisy Alioto