XOXO, With Trepidation

published by Eric Mill on

I bought a ticket to XOXO, an "arts and technology festival" to celebrate "disruptive creativity". It's being organized by Andy Baio, someone I admire for both his writing and his absurdly ahead-of-the-curve link feed. I can usually count on him to care about a lot of what I care about, but to write about it with more force and credibility.

I'm excited about XOXO - it'll bring together a lot of great people. But there are some warning signs that have me feeling pretty cautious.

The biggest is that the price is $400. I find this oxymoronic for a conference dedicated to independent art and culture. Sure, we'd all like the conference to be comfortable, and to be able to pay artists who are traveling to Portland to speak and offer their work. And since there are no sponsorships mentioned anywhere on the conference description, no one will have to put up with a keynote by some product manager at a big company who wants to assert their relevance to the creators of tomorrow or whatever.

But I think I'd rather XOXO "sell out" a bit and get sponsorship money, than self-select the conference to be the part of the Internet that is the intersection of "taste for indie games" and "doesn't have to keep a monthly budget if they don't want to". I also didn't see any scholarships offered for struggling artists or toolmakers who'd like to go but have the exceptionally poor taste to live on the east coast, or outside of the US.

Because of that specific intersection of people who'll be going, I'm concerned that there will be a feeling of privilege and exclusivity there: that sense of "I knew about it before it was cool" but multiplied by about 1,000. We all have a little hipster inside of us, and I'd hate to see the culture of the conference bring it out for display. If there is a talk about "the New Aesthetic", I may emit an uncontrollable scream.

Finally, I'm turned off by XOXO's emphasis on top-down curation. I do want XOXO to be a reflection in part of what Andy Baio loves and respects, but it would be a shame if that were all it was. Will there be any parts of the conference driven by participants? The marketplace will be "tightly curated" - will an artist not be able to sell there unless they're cool enough?

These things worry me especially because XOXO is not supposed to just be about indie games and webcomics. It's about a future where artists and technologists can find success without middle men. That's what companies like Etsy and Kickstarter (who are speaking there), and even Amazon, are doing. It is a future that is happening, but is supposed to be, quite intentionally, a non-curated one where people's expectations are regularly upended, and people are allowed to participate without a corporation's subjective advance approval, or paying hefty upfront fees to publishers of any kind.

So while I like what XOXO claims to stand for, and I'll be going there myself to see it, I am concerned that it's not going to reflect its own values. Baio, and his co-planner Andy McMillan, are passionate people with a good vision - I just hope they are aware of the dangers as they bring it into reality.


  1. Libbey White

    Quoting Greg on the word "new": "that little word holds up the possibility of a progressive way of engaging with contemporary aesthetic reality." Wow. That's a helluva lot of work for one little word, one that I use all the time without realizing what possibilities it's holding up.

    There is something inherently different about digital works, though. There are important ways in which things made out of leather or brass are not the same. Part of it has to do with privilege. Hand someone who lives in Kibera a very useful and amazing digital creation on a USB stick, and see how well it goes over. Would I say that the work on the USB stick is less "authentic?" No, not the word I would choose. I just don't really believe that "resistance to and marginalization of recent digital possibilities" is really a problem. Is it?

  2. Greg Borenstein

    How is that attack on the New Aesthetic any different than calling a political movement "progressive"? No description of contemporary aesthetic reality can be universal or totalizing. And it really is a projection to assume that NA is claiming any such. It's reductive to...err...reduce NA to chiptune and video glitches. At it's heart NA is people going "Hey! Something interesting is happening over here that we haven't seen before. We're excited about it and would like to figure out what it means."

    The parallel to political leanings is deeper than it may appear. I find the wide-spread obsession with retro aesthetics oppressive in much the same way (though not to the same extent) that I do conservative cultural views. The idea that to dress like an adult (a "gentleman" as the internet zeitgeist would have it) you have to dress up in mid-twentieth century corporate executive drag really bothers me. Or the idea that making physical things (especially out of leather, brass, or other "craftsman" materials) is somehow more authentic than making digital things. These kinds of aesthetic views (and many related ones) are part of a widespread conservative aesthetics that consists, largely, in resistance to and marginalization of recent digital possibilities. And I think they bring with them a lot of assumptions about what is "real" and what is "meaningful", assumptions that are closely related to other more obviously political ideas about ideal social organization and personal comportment. When it becomes a matter of public discourse and consumption and design patterns, aesthetics ceases to be just an issue of individual taste or "what you like", but of instead consists of advocacy for what kind of shared world you imagine living in.

    So, while I find "the New Aesthetic" to be a crap name because it is far too broad (as Bridle acknowledged from the moment of its inception) the "new" is the most exciting part of it: that little word holds up the possibility of a progressive way of engaging with contemporary aesthetic reality. Hopefully that way will be more inclusive of different ways of being in the world than the previous aesthetics. I'd argue that posts like Madeline Ashby's The New Aesthetics of the Male Gaze Ahttp://madelineashby.com/?p=1198 the many responses to POSZU's New Aesthetic - New Politics http://www.poszu.com/2012/04/03/new-aesthetics-new-politics/ and others have already made the conversation more inclusive and self-critical than nearly any other online cultural discourse I've seen. The best way to continue and extend that trend is to engage with it beneath the superficial level and to participate in order to make sure that the issues you care about are part of the conversation.

  3. Eric

    I know it's tough to put on a great conference with a low ticket price. I was just involved in putting one on at my organization (http://transparencycamp.org), and being a place with a large budget that can afford to lose money on some of the costs involved was a big help. Not everyone can do that. But we also took on sponsors, and did a scholarship program for people's travel and the cost of a ticket ($20). This partly included allowing registrants with resources to overpay to cover the costs of those with fewer resources.

    The reason I bring up the cost as a criticism is not that it's evil. It's that it is in tension with this particular conference's goals. Art && Code 3D as an example, you got access to a whole hell of a lot for the $45 general registration cost - even if you didn't pay for a workshop, you got to hear a lot of talks, see performances, and interact with fine people. Having some Microsoft talks inserted into the mix was a fine price to pay to keep the conference accessible.

    My hating on "The New Aesthetic" is completely related to my main point. I'm sure the discourse around what The New Aesthetic represents has been useful - the problem is that it's called "The New Aesthetic". It's a rhetorical attempt to take ownership over the present and future, and it turns my brain entirely off. It makes it feel like if you find chiptune music derivative, or hate glitch effects in video, or couldn't care less about technology altogether and find the fusion of it with nature to be corrupting, that you are not a part of the future of art and emotion.

    I'm positive it's not intended that way, and I'm positive, especially knowing you, that the participants in the dialogue around it are not all exclusionary individuals or "hipsters". But groups and movements can give off vibes that few if any of the actual participants want (see: Occupy).

    And it's that feeling that I am acutely concerned about being present at XOXO. The festival brings a message of "disruptive creativity" and empowerment, and I am concerned that a moneyed, likeminded audience will be in tension with that.

    I don't think this was me "taking pot shots". Baio and McMillan are certainly strong enough to take some heat on the cost of their conference, the level of curation they're bringing to it, and how that coheres with their overall message.

  4. spavis

    indiegogo : barcamp :: kickstarter : xoxo

  5. Greg Borenstein

    Why the totally-unrelated-to-your-main-point hating on the New Aesthetic? It's incredibly cynical to dismiss discourses others are enthusiastically and non-ironically involved in as "hipster". In fact, it's the ultimate hipster move: valuing your own cool detachment over others awkward engagement. For those of us deeply involved in it, the evolving discourse around the New Aesthetic has already been really productive on issues from digital archiving to questions of nostalgia, issues of computer science education for artists and designers, and the challenges and history of futurism. Just because you're tired of seeing it appear as a meme is no reason to reflexively denigrate it. Especially when you were at Art && Code 3D. When you think of the New Aesthetic, think of the spirit and creativity of that community.

    And, while I share some of the pain you're feeling about cost, I think it's rather ungenerous to bring them up as a criticism of XOXO. There's another great, different conference to be had by organizing things in the manner you hint at here. But while it's easy to wave your hands at what that conference might look like actually organizing it would be really challenging. Actually creating a conference that overcomes those challenges is a good way to address that. Taking pot shots at the Andys is maybe not as good of a way.

    A much more positive way to articulate it might be: to advocate for XOXO to use the funds they raise in excess of their goal to aid in accessibility/scholarships/etc. That would be something I could get behind.