Cottagecore. Dark academia. 2014 Tumblr girl. Besides being things you may hear after exchanging pleasantries with a Lana del Rey fan, these are all aesthetics—specifically, digital aesthetics.

    These aesthetics are also all largely found in American online spheres. In her course DIGITAL 601: “Digital Aesthetics: Power, Form, Politics,” Professor at U-M Stamps School of Art and Design and Digital Studies Institute, Dr. Irina Aristarkhova, brings a comparative lens to digital aesthetics, expanding it beyond aesthetic categories popular in the West.

    The role of aesthetics in digital spheres worldwide has long been a topic of interest for Aristarkhova. The idea for this particular course came to her after working with Michigan students on the “Imaginative Activism of Digital Citizens” project. In this project, Aristarkhova examined collaborations between Belarusian artists and IT workers that were part of the broader pro-democracy demonstrations in 2020, in particular on encrypted messaging services like Telegram or in AI. This research led her to questions such as “What are the practices of freedom on those platforms, including creative freedom?” Like this project, DIGITAL 601 works in tandem with the Arts and Resistance theme semester and keeps an eye towards current events.

    By focusing on the global state of digital aesthetics, Aristarkhova’s class pays close attention to regions where digital technologies are used toward advancing democracy. In these regions, Aristarkhova explains, cell phones and peer-to-peer networks serve as the primary connection to the digital world. These technologies influence digital aesthetics projects by allowing artists to distribute and publicize their works, as well as subvert expectations about art and power relations.

    An essential aspect of Digital 601 is the examination of the so-called “classical” aesthetics, and their crossovers with digital spaces, politics and new aesthetic concepts. “Now we’re dealing with AI, but when you look at a lot of the images generated, they often borrow styles of pre-existing art,” explains Aristarkhova. Other topics include the digital sublime and the distinction between the digital citizen and the digital user. Like in the real world, money and power often influence online art production, and Aristarkhova encourages students to think about capital and how much we are willing to risk for our creative and personal freedoms in online life and art.

    Students in Digital 601 investigate these themes through a midterm paper and another paper or an open-ended final project, with the goal of pushing students’ creative boundaries and fulfilling the practicum component of the Digital Studies Graduate Certificate. Additionally, the texts on the syllabus include a variety of media, such as a film made by U-M alumna Alisa Yang that was screened at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.