Web Aesthetics. Vito Campanelli And The Media Aesthetics

We live in a world of rapidly evolving digital networks, but within the domain of media theory, which studies the influence of these cultural forms, the implications of aesthetic philosophy have been sorely neglected, despite more than ten years of web design and web-based works.

Vito Campanelli – media theorist and lecturer at the University of Naples L’Orientale, “Neural” contributor, freelance curator and promoter of events in the domain of digital culture in collaboration with MAO – Media & Arts Office, explores network forms through the prism of aesthetics and thus presents an open invitation to transcend the inherent limitation of the current debate. Web is the medium that, more than any other, is stimulating the worldwide dissemination of ideas and behaviour and Vito Campanelli observes a few important phenomena of today, thus laying the foundations for an organic aesthetic theory of digital media.

Campanelli’s dissonant remarks are collected in his latest essay
 “Web Aesthetics (NAI Publishers, 2010, English). Fromhis analysis a continuum of fascination and a continuous intersection among diverse communication levels emerge; thus a crucial contribution to the wide, as well confused, debate on net art and, more in general, on network worlds. A book which has shaken (and is still shaking) field experts: by dealing with the analysis of new media through a different perspective linked to the aestheticization of reality; by identifying a series of idiosyncrasies, rituals and paradoxes of the network through a diverse range of categories (social networking, remix, monolingualism, etc.); by not considering political and sociological aspects; thus bridging a gap.


We are going to debate about that with the author in Avellino, during the conferences edited by him and Leandro Pisano @ Flussi Festival of New Media Art, which is by now one of the deepest-rooted realities in the context of the Italian IT (among the exhibitors who performed this year from 24th to 27th August: Kangding Ray, Peak,, Jan Jelinek + Masaioshi Fujita, Stephan MathieuDamiano Meacci e Oval

Pasquale Napolitano:
As regards your new book entitled “Web Aesthetics”, let’s start talking about its cover…

Vito Campanelli:
Design is the best part of this book! It boasts also a very pleasant tactile component. I say this being slightly provocative and not only, because one of the assumptions of my book is that nowadays surface is one of the ultimate elements…

Pasquale Napolitano:
How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?

Vito Campanelli:
My book is a research that has been undertaking since 2008 for the l’Istitute of Network Cultures of Rotterdam, a prominent cultural and research institute comparable more or less to the Italian Polytechnic University. It’s the first attempt to mould all those observations which in the last years have lead to study the most significant manifestations within the Web, aesthetic expressions across which it’s possible to stumble by dealing with digital networks. Trying to apply some postulates of the aesthetic thought to web was my original fascination, but very soon I expanded my research field beyond it, by embracing also a series of digital tools, like digital cameras and mp3s, and mobile devices that will be handier and handier. I could define my research strategy: “the present everyday life”.


Pasquale Napolitano: In my opinion this is right the trademark of your work…

Vito Campanelli:
For me it was vital filling a gap that all over the years has been humiliating the cultural debate on this subject, as well the new media theory on its whole; in the attempt to formulate a different theory which considers the aesthetic categories. Even only to bring its inadequacy and unreliability to light as far as the extent of the observed phenomenon concerns.

Most of the material I consulted for this work seemed inadequate to create an essay on the aesthetic role played by new media, because it lacked any references to the classical, modern and even postmodern theories. As though new media rose from nowhere and not from the continuum of human thought; and as if we could talk about specificity in the absence of a reference frame.

Another assumption all the publications I consulted have in common is that aesthetics influences computing, but according to me it’s just the opposite: the aesthetic experience is influenced through computing. In order to understand how, I immediately realized that I had to identify myself with those processes in which the digital perception paves the way to new forms of aesthetic experience, a new aesthetic sense which is catching on throughout society by creating unprecedented cultural manifestations.

Pasquale Napolitano:
Which dynamics did you identify?

Vito Campanelli:
Basically, the themes are two: aestheticization of reality and diffusion of web forms on a global scale. Two paths: society and web. This could puzzle all those people who expected a text on the Web and instead, they will find a book which ranges over a wide variety of phenomena that appear outside it, but which in my opinion are guided by the Web itself. In particular, people who expected a book on web design are going to be disappointed, because it’s a common mistake for those who mix aesthetics up with design. The assumption is: new media follow an underlying trend, i.e., the progressive aestheticization of reality, which for now goes unnoticed through the present-day society. New media and web are becoming the engine for this process by disseminating ideas and behaviour that find in the aesthetic strategy the key to enter into the common sense: web has taken over from TV as main medium within society.


Pasquale Napolitano: Your theories seem to take the shape of a a pars destruens

Vito Campanelli:
It’s easier to destroy than to create, even because I’ve always been convinced that aesthetics is the most powerful answer to the violence of modern mass communication. If we want this to happen, certain conditions must take place. The first one: developing an awareness of how communication systems work, an active and fighting aesthetics through which users can evolve from sacrificial victims of the media arena, into individuals able to generate aesthetic strategies alternative to those of hegemonic groups who, by dominating the scene of media life, dominate the meaning of our life too.

That’s the reason why I’m not interested in policies which create the Internet as we know it, but I rather prefer focusing on the nature of relationships between human beings and web, therefore I don’t concentrate on socio-economic needs that push some layers of the society towards creative needs, but rather I try to understand which is the nexus between creative act and human-machinic subjectivity.

My aim consists in encouraging a greater awareness as regards the dynamics of digital
network by interpreting the web aesthetic experience as an abandon to an aesthetic flow that, fuelled by a logic implied by digital technologies, tends to encompass the present-day life. My priority was to fully understand which are the terms of relationships among human beings, machinic blocks and aesthetic perception. This issue made me all a series of matters postpone, some of them of highest importance, as for example the concentration of contents in large databases, as well the fact that, in order to interact with such a complexity, there’s no other way but to do it through an opaque tool like search engines.

Pasquale Napolitano: Let’s debunk a series of clichés, like the one which claims that web is an explosion of creativity and innovation…

Vito Campanelli:
Repetitive behaviour plays an essential role nowadays. Even in this case, trying to imagine antagonistic behaviour without having a proper awareness of how these repetitive patterns work, it’s like piloting an aircraft without having ever performed and logged an hour on a flight simulator. The consequences would be devastating. Nowadays aesthetics is the bone of contention and by its means we’re asked to comply with behaviour and lifestyles. In order to counter this trend, it’s necessary to pay them back with their own coin, but not by reproducing the same contents (maybe with amateur contents), but by trying to use aesthetics to disseminate dissonant messages contrasting the prevailing ones. This is an aesthetic idea which refers to Adorno’s one.

I also developed another observation linked to the repetitiveness of amateur productions. In particular, I tried to highlight the trend that in my opinion is crucial for the present-day society: the dawn of a new aesthetic category, the cool one, which comes into conflict with the classical one of beauty, an aesthetic typology that today is completely obsolete. Our life flows so fast that we have no more time to waste on judge, a basic element of the beauty category. This was replaced by the
cool category, because it takes a few seconds to joint it: I see something on Facebook, click “like” and move on.

Pasquale Napolitano:
In your essay you dealt with another thorny issue, i.e., monolingualism, thus debunking another western myth…

Vito Campanelli:
The first chapter deals with the theme of dialogue, inside and outside the Web, because I think that communication difficulty underlies one of the main gaps of the new media theory. The naivity of those people, who still believe that English is a universal language, does anything but smooth the way to monolingualism. If we take a look at statistics, we can easily understand that monolingual speech communities (the Chinese or even the Spanish one) are more than the number of English spoken people. So a series of communities who only speak to each other formed, and is still forming, thus generating a kind of self-referentiality, without then communicating with the rest of the world. They’re some sort of disconnected islands, that is to say a paradox for the Web, where it’s said that all is connected. Therefore, even these communities who prefer comfort to confront, are paving the way to monolingualism, this is for example the case of many blogs that let only registered people, identified by blog administrators, leave a comment, or which maybe don’t at all. This is a shock even to the web Anglocentric postulate.


Pasquale Napolitano: Your text is written in English, but it looks steeped in European humanistic culture…

Vito Campanelli:
The second chapter reveals a typically European need for linking the Old with the New, this means: an analysis from the historical point of view. So, in this chapter I dealt with the issue of tracing the aesthetic experience history, unusual in the Anglocentric field, but just for this reason it was a conditio sine qua non. I dealt very much with the widespread aesthetics along the lines of texts such as “Estetica degli oggetti”/”The Aesthetics of Objects” by Ernesto Francalanci (Il Mulino, 2006), then I drew on some insights into the meme theory [1] and linked them to the network theory, that I think it’s more interesting, like Barabási-Albert’s one,a generative model which actually explains how networks operate.

I also paid close attention to the experience of digital
 network surfing and to the tools of data storage, identifying a “latency status” (all the time sitting in front of the PC, waiting for a download or data compression, etc.) as common constant, what has undoubtedly consequences from an aesthetic point of view. Moreover, I also paid close attention to this kind of desire to store data on net, which characterizes the present. While I was analyzing share contents on peer-to-peer networks, I asked myself which values are at stake in these aesthetic experiences, which I defined “disturbed aesthetic experiences”. As regards this theme, I launched a research project: Beautifully Imperfects ( where I debate about this thesis on the imperfect nature of web aesthetic experience: web contents are always the result of a compromise between weight and quality and due to this, we’ve got used to a new kind of aesthetic experience over the years which it’s just the opposite of that one of “HI-FI” during the ‘80s. Imperfect contents, the disturbed aesthetic experiences, bordering sometimes on hacking. On this site I ask people to post these imperfect experiences, “experienced” while they’re surfing the Net.

Pasquale Napolitano: One book chapter is dedicated also to remix: this is such a vast theme that it can bring so many opinions, even antithetical to each others…

Vito Campanelli: From my point of view, quoting Lev Manovich, we’ve reached this stage of “deep remixability”, i.e., a moment in which everything can be remixed with everything.

Pasquale Napolitano: What does this condition imply?

Vito Campanelli: Remix logic has become the authentic cultural dominant factor of time. In my book I merged this concept with that of R.I.Y. (remix it yourself) which comes from the classic one, do it yourself, to then embrace this remix universe. Finally, I even tried dealing with the limitation of the ethics concerning the remix itself.

Pasquale Napolitano: How can sectarianism, the ghettoization you described in your text, reconcile with the trend towards remix, which is instead a clear symptom of hybridization?

Vito Campanelli: Monolingualism is actually an out-and-out paradox that shows how often there isn’t a real need to confront oneself in a dialogical sense. What is preparatory to develop a new series of fundamentalisms. I can’t find a solution to this problem and without a shadow of a doubt, the opening and interchange policies promoted by the European Community are mainly token solutions. Remix can’t be put on the same level. But even in this case we have to ask ourselves how many people, of those who use remix, are willing to confront themselves, or if maybe they are only interested in showing their virtuosity to the inner circle they belong to. So, even remix often comes to flow into sectarianism. Furthermore, though it potentially has endless possibilities, remix tends to make irrelevant the most part of its contents due to its imitation and repeating nature. Another paradox: though we have abilities and means, we willfully choose to repeat the most banal things.

Pasquale Napolitano: Is this for example the case of viral videos? Don’t you think that this is a real opening and diffusion phenomenon of practice and contents?

Vito Campanelli: Sure, but conformism is always just round the corner. People keep on choosing videos according to standards, like “most watched”, “most clicked”, “coolest”. Only a few people innovate language, as for example the case of the vanguards of the twentieth century. The problem of bottom-up productions is that, believing to be in the right, they don’t often deal with aesthetic aspects: this is a blunder, above all because there’s a strong need to improve the critical ability.

Pasquale Napolitano: In your book it seems evident your use of methodological criteria, not historical, but Husserlian-phenomenological. Or maybe was this fragmentary approach to new media made on purpose?

Vito Campanelli: Phenomenology looked the only possible approach to me: observing reality and trying to tell it by correlating it with a series of phenomena, even distant in time. After the breaking point caused by postmodernity it seemed absolutely impossible having a different attitude. We can’t describe something definitive, especially if we’re talking about an ever-changing contest as the Web.

Pasquale Napolitano: Where is this path, at least for now, leading?

Vito Campanelli:My book ends with the relationship between human and machinic subjectivity, where I let a “technological hypersubject” as the keyrole of current creativity emerge. And this is then the matter I would like to talk about later, because I think this is the field where aesthetics is playing its best match for the future.


[1]A meme is the least unit of information relative to human culture that can be replicated by a human mind or a symbolic data storage device, such as from one book to an other mind or device. In more specific terms, a meme is a “self-replicating” unit of cultural evolution analogous to a gene, therefore memetics functions analogously to genetics. This word was coined by Richard Dawkins, but a similar concept had previously been predicted by William S. Burroughs, when he stated that “language is a virus”. Memetics is a systemic and socio-cognitive approach that, analogously to biological standard patterns, which explain the similarity from one generation to another through genes, proposes that “cultural inheritance” can be explained through replicators, i.e., memes.

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