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(Investigative) Aesthetics

I’ve discussed the work of Forensic Architecture earlier in this blog, and lately have been reading Investigative Aesthetics (by Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman). This book provides a helpful, practical discussion of aesthetics in action, unpacking the various affective, political and societal relations that thread together to form the concept.

Until recently my understanding of aesthetics could be described as the aesthetics of affect. Coming from a design background, aesthetics is a useful shorthand for – at least in visual design – the way something looks, feels, the vibe that it creates. Within advertising it is an efficient way to set the goal for a design process – “we are going for a tech aesthetic / this is minimalist” etc.

This week we put “aesthetics” under more forensic examination. To keep it related to the visual design field – why do those terms describe those looks? What processes and power topologies, cultural, social and political forces coalesced around the agreed terms?

Jacques Ranciere describes aesthetics as “the distribution of the sensible”, in a political sense. Ranciere segments parts of society to their relationality to each other within a space of “police order”. The “police order” is the existing hegemonic structure that shapes “practical sensibilities of being and interacting”. This police order defines what is thinkable – sensible. Anything outside of this spectrum is “unthinkable” to the mainstream within the political body – and puts those who do venture outside this zone at risk of political retribution.

As a result this framing gives tremendous power to art to challenge the status quo. Art may challenge definitions and delineations, and yet also acts as a desirable commodity with capital value which (within a capitalist framework) can get it through the doors of the white cube and into the portfolios (and debatably, minds) of the “sensible.”

Forensic Architecture’s practice revolves around the sensibility of found-footage, public online platforms, digital archives and the stories that may be told through their subsequent digital reconstruction. Their work is a vivid example of both working within and without the “police order” using the power of art to create counter narratives against hegemonic institutions.

Investigative Aesthetics (by Fuller and Weizman) defines aesthetics as a form of sensing. And, as such, sensing is a documentation of material events. They give the example of a brick in a wall – the brick is made of certain materials, these materials have typical characteristics but then if something happens to the brick wall, it gets impacted, blown apart, scratched, torn down – these events are all inscribed into the material of the brick itself. The brick has “sensed”. Sensing is not sense-making sense making is the cognitive process that can glean a story from the material effects of the sensing.

The definition scales up with the definition of Hyper Aesthetics as complex systems of sensing and sense-making, involving related sensing-objects. The objects may be material or conceptual, human and non human – for example, complex assemblages of weather sensing systems and machine learning systems that can process the output to create “sense” of the cumulative data flows.

As an artist, the reframing of aesthetics as intrinsic to all material relations, and the delineation of sensing and sense-making as distinct processes, is an incredibly helpful perspective that will enrich my practice.

Strangely, the discussion reminded me of one of my favourite drawing books, “Drawing on the right side of the brain” by Betty Edwards. Up until I read this book, I had struggled with drawing – I felt like I could see what I wanted to draw, but there was a disconnect between what my physical body would put on the page vs what my perception wanted to put on the page. The book encourages ways of observing line without a conscious thought, bypassing the “left side of the brain” (sense-making apparatus) and instead just attuning your mind and body to “sense” the line you are attempting to capture. When the process works, it almost feels like a meditative state – and subsequently, when I revisit the drawing will my full attention, I’m often surprised at the nuance that I captured almost incidentally.