On Artificial Aesthetics

Preface to “Artifical Aesthetics”, volume by Miguel Carvalhais (U.Porto edições, 2016).

The present work by Miguel Carvalhais on Artificial Aesthetics derives from his PhD Thesis I supervised, successfully completed in 2011. It was then already evident that any structuring contributions to the reading of (and navigation through) emerging media would be most welcome, given the apparent over-abundance and deep complexity of contextual, aesthetic and semantic layers at stake. As Clive Dilnot has recently posited, it all changed when media abandoned its linear, mechanical premise and converged towards the subjective, the infinitely re-configurable in the first person. And if this was an issue in 2011, we have meanwhile witnessed its exponential growth in the five years that mediate the thesis completion and the birth of the present book.

I currently work with a Design Research Group that, up until recently, answered by the name “Media and Perplexity”; it has now been re-named “Center for Unexpected Media”, since we found the former designation slightly cumbersome as a visiting card in academic and scientific circles. Yet the term “Perplexity” remains at the center of what we have been tapping into: how in these early days of the Twenty-First Century, the core translations of our existential journey seem to be continually undergoing a radical paradigm shift that is, for all purposes, a violent process. This violence may be quite literal in specific instances, particularly in the polarised semantics of mass media (hilarity versus gravitas, euphoria versus catastrophe), yet it is fundamentally an ontological violence, a violence exerted over the being that struggles with how new media, emancipated from linearity of purpose, become particularly (and paradoxically) apt at self-perpetuating our shortcomings in a spiral of collective, compulsive psychoanalysis: hallucinatory, sensual, endorphin-driven, obedient – but more scarcely contributive to our fundamental need for harmonisation. Uprooted from mythological archetypes, new media emerge as a master of paradox: devoid of a template, devoid of a consensual grammar, they become a non-contradictory accumulation of opposites, an endless, self-driven exercise in speculation. None of this is necessarily fatal, we may observe, but it demands a fundamental re-consideration of the most basic assumptions regarding the creative and communicative act. And how to decipher it, so that it regains its clarity of purpose, its sense of contribution.

Which is why the present book is both timely and welcome: it fundamentally proposes an effective navigational map through a “permanent state of impermanence”, as I described the first condition of contemporaneity back in 2005. The map the present book drafts is complex yet concise, rigorously structured yet open to the inevitable fluidity of the now, assured while avoiding the traps of dogma. And like any other map, it is driven by the will to travel, to witness and to act: it only fulfils its vocation when translated into experience; and in that sense, this book becomes an invitation for further action on the part of the reader, the ultimate subject.

Artificial Aesthetics is a rigorous, focused reading of our times, and an anchoring of their signals in much-needed systems of interpretation. As such, it will hopefully resonate as a future testimony of an era of deeply chaotic undertakings, while concurrently offering a particularly suitable key to its decipherment. But we shall not wait: this key is here, right now, and it is up to you, dear reader, to turn it open.

Professor Heitor Alvelos
March 2016