Aesthetics and Technology
How Pop Culture Determines the Look of the Future

Humanoid robots, whether compliant or anarchic, are products of our pop culture: "Metropolis", "Star Wars", Jane Fonda and Missy Elliot, all of them design the futurisms of new technology and their aesthetics. Nowadays, they predict the look of the future dialectically with robotics.


They are smooth, like lacquer, smooth like the alleged human skin in that razor commercial, not eel-smooth: much too close to us organic humans and the slimy eroticism of our bodies - plastic-smooth. 

The name "Robot" stems from the Czech play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek (filmed in 1935 by Aleksandr Andriyevsky, for example) and means - how appropriate: "Frondienst" or "slave work". It goes back to the Church Slavonic word for "slave". Here, robots still look a bit like mechanical machines, more like the late futurisms of industrialization. They retain their metallic, silvery surface as an antithesis to our porous, organic, hairy skin. Through an elegant cut, RUR is placed in the tradition of the knight. He merges with his armor, leaving us with the eternal question: do robots wear shiny clothes or is it their naked bodies that reflect? It's a question that will also drive fashion.

Give me your glamour! 

The first feature-length science fiction movie boasts with even more metallic glamor: Fritz Lang's 1927 expressionist Metropolis tells of the iron-beamed robot woman Maria fighting for the workers. Note the hair, which self-evidently transforms into a helmet in flapper hairstyle form. Somewhere between the memories of the geometric forms of the triadic ballet and a sinful, denatured type of Mary she dances.

German art historian Aby Warburg would say "She lives on": as a light reflection on the "tall slender robot of human proportions with a gleaming bronze-like metallic surface of an 'Art Deco' design" known as C-3PO? Perhaps in a suit of vibranium? In the Mary-like stage outfits of Cher or the shield-like metallic bikini of Princess Leia and in the 7-minute celebration of a golden sneaker on YouTube that looks like a small spaceship. Thanks to the Instagram filter that transforms the face into a golden mask, finally as a home selfie!

With the cross-gender full-body suit, in the 1960s the smooth surface advances to the aesthetics of a new era, for instance, among others, by Catwoman, who coined the term catsuit. No seams, no folds: nothing refers to its assembly anymore. A rejection of visible mechanics, of the process that characterized "modern times" a few decades earlier. No more buttons as wearable screws on this dress, no more metal inserts for the mechanical closing of the dungarees as industrial souvenirs.

100 carat plastic 

That's why Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Mary Quant turned their studios into laboratories in the late 1960s. Plastic was the material of the future when they still had no idea of its almost endless life span of 450 years. They cast clothes out of PVC, plastics flow into raincoat molds. See-through vinyl heels at Genrich, Beth Levine makes stocking shoes glow, Dacron, Mylar, plastic! Plastic in its manifold beauty.

The particularly crafty use lip gloss to write their metallic surfaces all over themselves: even in 2004, in Lil Mama's song Lip Gloss, the hip-hop version of a halo celebrated it as a gamechanger. And, of course, it's supposed to shine like a mirror: In the '70s and '90s, chiaroscuro, or playing with light at the disco, takes on a different meaning. All genders live, as in Thank God it's Friday and Divine's music video I'm so beautiful for the reflection, the effect.

The "turn on all the lights, please" disco ball becomes a blanket career aspiration and fashion ideal.

Luckily, Jane Fonda aka Barbarella was back on earth in the 1980s to celebrate the next chapter of tight-fitting, slick clothes: Time for aerobics.  A great endurance workout for the fashion-conscious, futuristic person. Surprise: invented in 1967 by a military doctor and astronaut trainer named Kenneth H. Cooper. It usually only shines this much in the sadomasochistic fetish world, as in Il portiere di notte by Liliana Cavani, which makes Charlotte Rampling a star and negotiates the clothing of the Nazi era.

With silver and shiny surfaces, pop culture designed the robot, as in this one music video by rapper Missy Elliott, to this day between military armor and constant mirror: on its surface we reflect ourselves. In WTF (Where they from), by the way, the narrative of the animated doll also places it in the tradition of the Jewish golem, as in The Golem, as it came into the world from 1920 or in E.T.A Hoffmann's The Sandman

Sometime shortly after the middle of the last century, the aesthetic fantasies of the robot merged under the smooth surface with the ideas of what extraterrestrial life looks like. The two great unknowns merged. In 2010, Alexander McQueen's Plato's Atlantis  provides a fitting evolutionary explanation: elongated, alien-like heads combine with snake skin and gills. They interact with an environment of robotic arms that seem to demand their hybrid forms. With so much futurity, it's almost a side note that McQueen promotes his metamorphoses and symbioses as the first live-streamed fashion show. 

Juno Birch, contemporary artist and robot woman with alien influences, works out the transitions in her outfits and makeup. On the medium of skin, she creates non-porous surfaces in the tradition of drag, an alien, fantastical face paint. A few reflections of light on the surface: voila! Juno Birch comments on the Sims with her protagonist "Desperate Birth" in front of a retro wallpaper in Let's Play style. She flirts with the animated doll again, an ironic commentary on gender roles and midcentury domesticity.

Okay, some "mysterious stranger," as Alf's subtitle puts it, always steps out of line. But when the rule of the smooth surface is broken by him or by Jean-Piere Jeunet's Alien, the fur or milky splashing liquid at least make film history. Or when, as in David Cronenberg's Existence from 1999, robots appear in organ form, which we insert directly into our bodies, e.g. via the belly button or via an interface: sometimes we connect soothingly in analogy to the gas station where everything begins - sometimes the ominous individual parts come out directly from the protagonist's mouth in the form of prosthetic teeth and are assembled by him. Thanks to spherical music and sparse lighting, this is of course part of a horror narrative. 

Robots and space as queer utopias

The designs of the alien are fundamentally informed by queer culture. A community that knows the mark as the other, the new, threatening or oppressed, as reflected in the 1919 classic film Different from the Others.

Queer artists like the transwoman Jayne County, whose life is told in the film Hedwig and the angry Inch and whose style David Bowie copied, design outer space, aliens and cyborgs as a utopia of freedom beyond supposedly biological rules.

Characters like Lily in the series Sex Education continue this tradition today. For example, in this sex scene between Ola and Lily in space clothes with octopus tentacles, or Lily's queer musical production of Romeo and Juliet, which the principal sabotages. The queer icon Björk works with futuristic body extensions and, close to the discourse of robotic prosthetics and disability studies, questions normative humanity. Fashion and performative arts, though often hidden, are a relative space for queerness: Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Pierre Cardin and his unixsexfashion, Balenciaga, Dior, the "Queen of Less" Jil Sander, Pepper LaBeija, Hubert de Givenchy, John Galliano, Kenzo, Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld, Walter Van Beirendonck, Jean Paul-Gautier, the queer Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway, queer musicians such as transwoman Wendy Carlos, composer of the score for The Shining and various Stanley Kubrick films, who worked on the first commercially available synthesizer and was an experimental pioneer in making electronic music what it is today. Queer artists have thus not only thought ahead to the aesthetics of robots, but have also culturally prepared an experimental, positive relationship to new technologies such as robots.

Why are robots actually white?

Next to silver, the other non-color of the century is white! White, or as Loic Prigent calls it: bleached lab aesthetic, sexy meringue, flawless sorbet, Brand Pitt's midday smile, it's not white, it's the color of the center of the French flag.

Robots seem to be the "White Cubes" incarnate. A concept that places artworks in completely white exhibition spaces, thus declaring white no longer just medical, but also a visual neutrality. Here luminously adapted by a searching camera in the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. - In 1968, one enters the void in white to be on the safe side. Because the technological future is of course still so new that it does not yet know any inscriptions. We ourselves, like the software, live in utopian, naturally white, housings: in UFOs freshly landed in 1968, at least if the architect Matti Suuronen and Filippo Tommaso's Futurist Manifesto have their way. And because we're so progressive: 1973 White Sex Machines by Woody Allen in Sleeper. The white color of spacesuits, white, the color chosen by André Courrèges for 1964 for the Space Age. The Moon Girl is born. Not without reason, according to PPP (Peter Paul Polte), the history of fashion divides into two biblical eras. "BC and AC: Before Courrèges and After Courrèges." Don't forget the flat white boots, please. Or take these by Martin Margiela: white anonymity since 1989, provided you're not recognized by your shoes.

White, of course, what else in a Eurocentric world where - despite the fairest character in sci-fi history T'Challa in avowedly Afrofuturist costumes - there are not only racist robots, but even racism against black robots? White, almost ironically innocent. After white angels, doctors and the patriarchal phantasms of virginity, white working-class clothing for maids, butchers - or perhaps white colonial clothing as an agent of exploitation, white robots are the next logical step, aren't they? 

Because every device secretly wants to be a spaceship and we already wear matching clothes anyway, domesticated devices have also been shining in white since Dieter Rahms and Steve Jobs. Fittingly, white corporate design dominates the Real Humans series, at least as long as everything is still good.

And as it goes in life, you're actually always yesterday's news. Fashion and body are now merging into an interface at Jasna Rokegem, a bit like back then in "I'm a cyborg, but it's okay", augmented fashion at "the fabricant", for all those for whom even the top in the home office is too much, or digital fur displays by Benaz Farahi, if you don't like to talk about feelings. After the robots looked like designers had designed alien creatures, but then became uncomfortably similar to us in dystopias, robots are now transforming themselves into clothing that we operate with our bodies. Skin on Skin.