Tag Archives: James Bridle

Fandom Matters

Original published @ Guardian Books

One of the notable features of science fiction and fantasy fandom is that it exists around five to 10 years ahead of the curve when it comes to information technology. The 50% of the early world wide web that wasn’t porn was made up of Star Trek: The Next Generation fansites; with every new territory opened up by technology, be it blogs, social networks or ebooks, SF fans have been among the early colonists. This is partly because SF and fantasy is part of the genetic code of most tech geeks. But it’s also because SF fandom is a tight-knit community, and from the earliest days of print fanzines onwards it has recognised new ways to build the strength of that community.

SF and fantasy writers understand that community, or they pay with their careers. Frankly, trying to become a SF author without an intimate understanding of SF fandom is like trying to become a Catholic priest without talking to the Vatican. For most SF and fantasy writers this understanding is innate; they’ve been fans from birth, and the web of conventions, societies, publishers and online communities that make up the architecture of fandom have likely been their safe haven from the annoyingly ungeeky “mainstream” for much of their life. Even the authors who appear to criticise or reject fandom, such as Harlan Ellison, do so with the studied skills of the expert insider.

So the success of a novel such as Fifty Shades of Grey is far less surprising to anyone who understands the dynamics of fandom than to the mainstream publishing industry. When James Bridle pointed to the book as evidence of fan-fiction as a rich seam for publishers, he managed to come amusingly close to the point while missing it altogether. That it was fan-fiction based in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightverse is beside the point. That it was chosen by fans and made successful through their support is far more significant. Because what fans want above all else – what in fact defines the very essence of fandom – is ownership of that which we adore.

It is the emerging culture of fandom, empowered by the internet andsocial media, that explains the phenomenal success of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter. The platform’s most high profile success stories – The Order of the Stick’s $1m fundraiser, for example – tell only a part of the story. More informative perhaps is author Chuck Wendig,who raised just under $7,000 for the latest instalment in his Atlanta Burns series through crowdfunding. Wendig isn’t a superstar (yet) and doesn’t have a huge established readership (also yet). But what he has gained is the warm regard of a fandom through his Terribleminds blog. Every fan who buys a piece of Wendig gets to feel a real sense of ownership, far more than if they had just walked into a shop and paid for the book itself. In a very real sense Kickstarter makes fans as important as creators, because it is the fans who directly empower the artist to make the art.

But the demands of fandom are far from the lofty expectations of many who seek artistic fame and fortune. As musician Amanda Palmer relates to Techdirt, the people who are contributing to her Kickstarter, whichstands at $577,010 with 24 days to go at the time of writing, are giving because they know her. Twitter is the platform that has allowed her as an artist to develop a personal rapport with tens of thousands of people, on top of a relentless tour schedule. Palmer spends hours every day sharing her life on Twitter, and when it came time to support an artist they felt a personal bond with, her fandom have come through with more solid financial support that most artists will ever receive from a record label or book publisher. In Palmer’s own words, we are entering the age of the social artist.

Any writer working today who can’t answer the question, “What fandom am I writing for?” may as well pack up their pens and paper and settle into that call centre job. It doesn’t have to be SF fandom. In fact, preferably not, as we’re already swamped with refugee literary writers desperately trying to make out they’ve always been geeks at heart. In this age, fandom’s are the only true arbiters of taste. The publishers that survive will be the ones that understand that their role is to amplify the signal of those artists already chosen by fandom. The writers who succeed will be the ones who are there day in and day out, as much a part of fandom as any other fan, and on first name terms with the neighbours. Because if you aren’t willing to live on the ground as one of the fans, why should you expect them to hoist you on their shoulders for your shot at reaching the stars?

Enhanced by Zemanta

The New Aesthetic and I

Every creative is always looking for a new aestehtic. And now there really is a New Aesthetic.

I will date the New Aesthetic to Bruce Sterling’s essay on the subject, in response to the SXSW panel chaired by James Bridle. But I’ll date my personal interest to the AlterFutures talk I gave recently, where it came up as a subject of conversation.

A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The most interesting period in a new aesthetic is its molten youth, when it picks up random debris from the surrounding landscape and no one can say for sure what form it will solidify in to or what parts of human society will be destroyed by its flow. So asking ‘What is the New Aesthetic?’ is like trying to fast forward through the big budget disaster movie. A better question might be ‘What will the New Aesthetic be when it stops being interesting?’

The New Aesthetic has been given a name by a group of London based design and creative types, and maybe it’s taking off because its just about loose enough to encompass one of those ideas that is emerging among many creative people; who given the social conditioning of creativity still at large in the early 21st C, are likely all of a similar age and social class; 20 to 30 somethings with the educational privilege to understand both contemporary culture and the technology driving it all.

The visible tropes of the New Aesthetic are: glitches and corruption artefacts in digital objects, render ghosts, satellite views, retro 80’s graphics. If you look through a tumblr of New Aesthetic imagery thats kind of what you will see. But it tells you nothing, so forget it.

Here’s a better way to think about it. The early 21st C has spawned an entire class of ‘cultural creatives’. Maybe 10-15% of the population of modern post-industrial nations like the UK are employed creating text, imagery, video, animation, sound, for the entertainment and advertising industries, and sometimes even as art. Expand your definition of creative to comfortably accommodate coders and some other knowledge worker types, and it all tallies up to a lot of people creating a lot of stuff every moment of every day. Start thinking about user generated content and you can increase the amount of stuff by factors of ten.

You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic

But. Actually what all of these people are doing, now, is using a computer. You could call the New Aesthetic the ‘Apple Mac’ Aesthetic, as that’s the computer of choice for most of these acts of creation. Images are made in Photoshop and Illustrator. Video is edited in Final Cut Pro. Buildings are rendered in Autodesk. Books are written in Scrivener. And so on. To paraphrase McLuhan “the hardware / software is the message” because while you can imitate as many different styles as you like in your digital arena of choice, ultimately they all end up interrelated by the architecture of the technology itself.

Horizon, one of my early published SF stories, is arguably a New Aesthetic story.

Every item of clothing in TopShop, whatever fashion style it is aping, has more in common with every other item because they are all products of the same digital creation / automated manufacture process. The cities of Britain are increasingly just agglomerated masses of Autodesk wireframes constructed from the most economically profitable prefabricated building blocks. Films and television are driven by innovations in CGI, and the superhero franchise reigns supreme because once you have all the digital assets in place, there is no reason not to make the Nth Spiderman movie.

I’ve strayed too far in to negative critique here, some of the outcomes of all this are actually quite beautiful I imagine. And also, this isn’t new. It’s been emerging for a generation. And it’s not what the New Aesthetic is or will be. Think of the New Aesthetic as the totality of our response to this as creators, and we might be getting closer.

Imagine the world’s creative community as a huge colony of meerkats, hanging out on the digital savannah, every single one of us wired and responding to the same stream of information via Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. If you’re one of us, don’t ever fool yourself in to thinking you’ve found an idea first. Even in the old days of telephone calls and television, no one ever had an idea without a few thousand other people having it as well. If you got lucky, you were the person in the right place and time to capitalise on the idea. Ideas are built from the repurposed components of other ideas. Creativity is re-combinatorial. Curation is the core creative act of all artists, even if only of their own work. And now with social media the speed of viral idea transmission has topped out the acceleration graph. At any given time hundreds of thousands of people are having the same idea, built from the same blog posts and tweets and videos and e-books. And the New Aestehtic is one of these ideas, and it is the aesthetic that arises from understanding that this is how ideas are now.

And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I.

Which is a challenge. Because I can’t own the idea. And neither can you. Or at least you’ll need an unspeakably monstrous ego to take ownership of something like the New Aesthetic in today’s networked world. And that’s another demand of the New Aesthetic worth considering. The constant demand to let go of I. Because our I can’t grasp the New Aesthetic. It’s a thing of We. A thing of the network.

There are 7431 CCTV cameras in London. I would like to put forward their combined video output over any given 24 hour period as a work of art in the New Aesthetic. Firstly, there is no I present for any of the images being recorded. They are electrical impulses recorded as 1’s and 0’s in magnetic storage. We might sit and watch the footage back in various combinations. We could edit it in to a two hour feature presentation. But that would be at best an introduction to the 178,331 hours of footage that is the complete text. It’s humanly possible to watch all the footage, but would take – as previously mentioned – a monstrous act of ego. And I could hardly claim to be the creator of this artwork. As for any meaning the footage might reveal, its far beyond the the reach of any single I to ascertain it.

The world, the universe, confronts us every day with a vast complexity that we can not hope to understand. One purpose of mediated objects is to give us an edited and abbreviated version of that complexity which our very limited perceptions can comfortably grasp. Films and books that tell limited stories which we can understand. Fashion that makes the world coherent enough that we can adopt a role within it. Visual imagery with a finite grammar that remains somewhat familiar. The New Aesthetic are the mediated objects which in one way or another return us to the actual complexity of reality. As such they become once again frustratingly impossible to grasp through the limited construct of I.

Related articles