Peter Lunenfeld on Sun, 7 Sep 1997 19:20:53 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Art Post-History [2/2]

VI.     Electronic Auras & the Aesthetics of Mutable Form
        Walter Benjamin's comments on the aura have become central to our
understandings of modern and post-modern image environments. Benjamin
observed the transformation of culture under the pressure of mechanical
technologies of reproduction, examining the impact of reproductive
techniques like printing, woodcuts, lithography, and especially the
mechanical arts of photography and film on the reception and appreciation
of art. Prior to the advent of these technologies, there was a singular
importance to an artwork's "presence in time and space, its unique
existence at the place where it happened to be."  This anchoring in place
and in moment is a prerequisite of its "authenticity" which in turn adds to
the "aura" of the work of art --its specialness, its roots in myth and
ritual, its fetish characteristic. "That which withers in the age of
mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art."
        In "The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism," Douglas Crimp
takes a fresh look at what had happened to the concept of the aura by the
1980s -- which not coincidentally saw the wide deployment of electronic
imaging technologies. In the photographic work of postmodern
appropriationists Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine, Crimp
finds an acquired aura, lifted from the "original" work from which the
artists appropriate. This acquired aura is now a "function not of presence
but of absence, severed from an originator, from authenticity. In our time
the aura has become only a presence, which is to say a ghost." [24] The
aura as ghost, though not generated by a consideration of digital
photography, is nonetheless a stimulating notion. Crimp's emphasis on
absence and severing from the origin is appropriate to a theorization of
the rupture between the photographic and the post-photographic eras.
        There has long  been a bifurcation in photography -- between the
photograph as documentary evidence, and the photograph as "art" object.
This opposition between realistic/documentary/journalistic photography and
art photography is one that has generated some of the most impassioned
critical writings on the medium. As we enter the digital era, the age of
the dubitative, this bifurcation will no longer function, for all digital
photographs -- no matter what their makers' intents -- are analogous to the
art photograph.
        Classical photographic practice relies upon mechanical and chemical
means, relatively unaided by human intervention, to re-present the outside
world. It is thus an ideally suitable medium for an "objective"
presentation of that exterior world. What of those who would employ
photography to render inner states, to concentrate on those qualities that
Abigail Solomon-Godeau describes as "the issues and intentions...associated
with the aestheticizing use of forms of the medium: the primacy of formal
organization of and values, the autonomy of the photographic image, [and]
the subjectivization of vision." [25] "Fine art photography" has always
been less reliant on truth value than documentary and news photography.
Much of art photography has been happy to mime the developments of other
art forms -- looking to painting as an exemplar of the "serious" art. The
tableaux vivantes and still lives, the concentration on formal questions of
light and shadow, the quest for the limits of photographic practice -- all
these are the hallmarks of the modern work, no matter what the medium.
        In another essay, Solomon-Godeau points out that regarding art
photography as "the expression of the photographer's interior, rather than
or in addition to the world's exterior, has been almost from the medium's
inception the doxa of art photography and a staple of photographic
criticism since the mid-nineteenth century." [26] This is the obverse of
the truth value question, it is that of the aesthetics of form. Yet, as we
move into the digital, the aesthetics of form become more and more involved
in the aesthetics of mutable form.

VI.     Art Post-History:  A Theory of Electronic Media
        Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) has as one of its undercurrents
an interrogation of the relationship between photography, memory, and
truth. [27] This science fiction film concerns Rick Deckard (Harrison
=46ord), a bounty hunter who tracks down androids who have escaped from
slavery in off-world colonies. These androids, called replicants and sold
with the tag line, "more human than human," are extremely difficult to
detect, and the possibilitity of "retiring" a human by mistake makes
Deckard's job even more distasteful. As the narrative develops, Deckard
encounters Rachel (Sean Young), a replicant who has been so fully implanted
with false memories that she thinks she is human. When he confronts her
with this news, she insists that this could not possibly be true, because
not only does she remember growing up, she has photographs to prove it, and
tries to show him a print of herself as a child in her mother's arms.
Deckard refuses to even look at it, and badgers her into accepting her
status as a replicant by forcing her to acknowledge that he knows things
about her innermost, and unvoiced thoughts -- things about her past that he
could only know if he were provided access to the memory files with which
she was programmed. She then drops the photograph and flees the apartment.
Deckard picks up the photograph, and the image fills the entire frame --the
photo becomes the totality of the film image. At this point the
extraordinary occurs: the "still" image of the photograph begins to move --
a ray of light wavers, as if obscured by a cloud, and the girl and her
mother seem to shift just slightly. [28] This short flickering can be taken
as a sign of a new era of the image -- the mutable aesthetic of the
electronic era made visible.
        Only a mutable aesthetic can accommodate contemporary phenomena
like "second-generation originals" -- modified digital image hybrids from
several sources. Electronic imaging technologies have problematized the
whole concept of an indexical relationship between the world and the
photograph, upon which the disciplines of both art history and semiotics
depend. A mutable aesthetic confronts the fact that as imaging
technologies change, so must our analyses of the art object evolve. As we
enter an era of digital photography on demand, image re-production via
electronic spigot, we are challenged to create a context that does not
completely devalue other forms of production and presentation. In essence,
it forces us to re-invent art history, which was born with the advent of
photography. Of what will the new art history, perhaps better formulated as
a hybrid theory of both new and old media, consist? [29]
        Finally, we must question how great a revolution these new media
will bring on. As Jonathan Crary points out in Techniques of the Observer:
"Photographs may have some apparent similarities with older types of
images, such as perspective painting or drawings made with the aid of the
camera obscura; but the vast systemic rupture of which photography is a
part renders such similarities insignificant. Photography is an element of
a new and homogeneous terrain of consumption and circulation in which an
observer becomes lodged. To understand the 'photography effect' in the
nineteenth century, one must see it as a crucial component of the a new
cultural economy of value and exchange, not as part of a continuous history
of visual representations." [30]  We know we are involved in a similar era
of change with regards to our techniques of image production; we must now
determine whether we are in the formative stages of a similar
transformation of our techniques of observation.

The man beholdeth himself in the glass and goeth his way, and straightway
both the mirror and the mirrored forget what manner of man he was.
Wendell Holmes [31]


This text was published in the catalogue, Photography after Photography:
Memory and Representation in the Digital Age,  eds. Hubertus von Amelunxen,
Stefan Inglhaut, Florian R=F6tzer (Sydney: G+B Arts, 1996). and translated a=
"Die Kunst der Posthistorie: Digitale Fotographie und Electroniche
Semiotik," in the catalogue, Fotographie nacht der Fotographie,  eds.
Hubeetus von Amelunxen, Stefan Inglhaut, Florian R=F6tzer (Munich: Verlag de=
Kunst und Seimans Kulturprogramm, 1996).


[1]  Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World ,
trans. Martin Ryle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 20.

[2]  See Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
(New York: Routledge, 1982), p. 82. on writing as a technology of textual

[3]  Foucault draws from La Croix du Main, Les Cents Buffets pour dresser
une bibliotheque parfaite (1583). Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An
Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 38.

[4]  "Caverns Measureless to Man: An Interview with Xanadu Founder Ted
Nelson by John Perry Barlow," Mondo 2000 No. 4, 1991, p. 138.

[5]   Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Stereoscopy and the Stereograph," originally
published in 1859 in the Atlantic Monthly, excerpted in Photography in
Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg (New York:
Touchstone, 1981), pp. 100-114, p. 113.

[6]  Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 209, n. 83. This triumph of
the representation over the object is not restricted to art history, as any
painter or sculptor can attest who has been forced to submit slides to a
call for work.

[7]  Remember that both the "photorealistic" graphic and the digital
photograph are at base simply representations of binary pairs: yes/no, 0/1,
on/off. They are compositionally indistinguishable from each other.

[8]  As Douglas Crimp points out, this contextualization of photography
within art history is in and of itself a recent phenomenon. "Photography
was invented in 1839, but it was only discovered  in the 1960s and 1970s --
photography that is as an essence, photography itself."[his emphases]
Douglas Crimp, "The Museum's Old, the Library's New Subject," in On the
Museum's Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), pp.  66-83, p. 74.

[9]  This is not, of course, to intimate that this is the first time such a
theorization has been called for. In the Keynote Address to the 1978
National Conference of the Society for Photographic Education, A.D. Coleman
gave an impassioned call for those interested in the theorization of
photography to come to grips with what he then saw as its inevitable
transformation in the electronic age. "Since much of the tradition of
photography -- in educational, historical, and critical terms -- is based
upon the silver negative and the silver print, extensive revision of our
premises in these regards will be necessary, as will the development of
comparable understandings of such likely replacements as magnetic and/or
electronic films and paper." A.D. Coleman,  "No Future for You?
Speculations on the Next decade in Photography Education," in Light
Readings: A Photographic Critic's Writings 1968-1978, (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1979), pp. 270-279, p. 272

[10]  Ferdinand de Saussure's Course on General Linguistics (1915),
posthumously compiled by his students, defines semiology: "A science that
studies the signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of
social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I call it
semiology (from the Greek semion 'sign'). Semiology would show what
constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since the science does not yet
exist, no one can say what it would be; but it has a right to existence, a
place staked out in advance." Ferdinand de Saussure, Course on General
Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (New York, McGraw Hill, 1966, orig. 1915),
p. 16.

[11]  Roland Barthes, "The Photographic Image," in Image, Music, Text,
trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 16.

[12]  ibid., p. 17.

[13]  Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington: University of
Indiana Press, 1987), p. 10.

[14] William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the
Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) p. 4.

[15] ibid., p. 5.

[16]  John Larish, Digital Photography: Pictures of Tommorrow (Torrance,
CA: Micro Publishing Press, 1992), p. 5.

[17]  Peter Wollen, Signs and Meanings in the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1972), p. 120.

[18]  The Collected Papers of Charles Saunders Peirce, ed. Charles
Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931), v.
II, p. 159.

[19]  While I am here pointing to the debt that the discourse of semiotics
bears to photography, Victor Burgin stresses the importance of semiotics to
the theory of photography in his essay, "Re-reading Camera Lucida."
Structuralist semiotics "demonstrated that there is no single signifying
system upon which all photographs depend (in the sense in which all texts
in English ultimately depend upon the English language); there is, rather,
a heterogeneous complex of codes upon which photography may draw." Victor
Burgin, "Re-reading Camera Lucida," in The End of Art Theory: Criticism and
Postmodernity (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International,
1986), pp. 71-95, p. 72.

[20]  Hollis Frampton, "Digressions on the Photographic Agony," in Circles
of Confusion: Film, Photography, Video: Texts 1968-1980 (Rochester: New
York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983), pp. 177-191, p. 190.

[21]  Quoted in Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye, p. 24. See also the
catalogue for the show "Digital Photography" at San Francisco Camerawork in
1988, curated by Marnie Gillett and Jim Pomeroy. The catalogue, Digital
Photography: Captured Images, Volatile Memory, New Montage, features two
essays, Tim Druckery's  "L'Amour Faux" (pp. 2-9)  and Martha Rossler's
"Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations: Some Ethical Considerations"
(pp. 28-33), both of which concentrate on the truth value question in
electronic imaging.

[22]  There has been some call for an identifier to be placed on modified
digital images to identify them. A suggestion from Norway proposes the word
"Montasje" be employed, using the capital "M" as the standard signal for
modification. Larish, Digital Photography, p. 160.

[23]   Gis=E8le Freund recounts a story about photographer Robert Doisneau,
famous for his shots of Parisians in caf=E9s and on the street. "One day, in
a small caf=E9 on the rue de la Seine where he was accustomed to meeting his
friends, he noticed a delightful young woman at the bar drinking a glass of
wine. She was seated next to a man who was looking at her with a smile that
was both amused and greedy. Doisneau asked and received permission to
photograph them. The photographs appeared in the magazine Le Point, in an
issue devoted to caf=E9s illustrated with Doisneau's photographs. He handed
this photograph, among others, to his agency." All this was well and good,
of course, until his agency started to sell the picture without Doisneau's
involvement. The man in the picture objected strenuously when the
photograph was used by an obscure regional magazine  to illustrate a piece
on drunkenness and temperance. Doisneau offered his profuse apologies, and
the man, a drawing instructor, though incensed that he should "be taken for
a boozer," accepted. The agency turned around and sold the photo to one of
=46rance's leading scandal rags. As is the wont of a scandal rag, they did a
story of vice, and captioned the picture: "Prostitution in the
Champs-Elys=E9es." At this point, all bets were off, the drawing teacher sue=
the magazine, the agency, and Doisneau. The court fined the magazine and
the agency, but found the photographer an "innocent artist." Gis=E8le Freund=
Photography & Society (Boston: David R. Godine, 1980), p. 178.

[24]   Douglas Crimp, "The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism," in On
the Museum's Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 108-125, p. 124.

[25]  Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "Photography After Art Photography," in
Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and
Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 103-123,
p. 113.

[26]  Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "Playing in the Fields of the Image," in
Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and
Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 86-102.,
p. 87.
[27]  These themes and the film's  visual style have prompted critics to
acknowledge Blade Runner as an exemplary post-modern object of study. See,
among  many other articles, Guiliana Bruno, "Ramble City: Postmodernism and
Blade Runner," October 41 (Summer, 1987), pp. 61-74 and David Harvey, "Time
and Space in the Postmodern Cinema" in the Condition of Postmodernity
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 308-323.

[28]  Both Elsa Marder and Kaja Silverman offer psychoanalytically
overdetermined readings of this scene: Elsa Marder, "Blade Runner's Moving
Still," Camera Obscura 27 (September, 1991), pp. and Kaja Silverman, "Back
to the Future," both in Camera Obscura 27 (September, 1991).

[29]  See Peter Lunenfeld, "The Digital Dialectic: Towards a Theory of New
Media," Afterimage v. 21, n. 4 (November, 1993), pp. 5-7, for an extended
attempt at this project.

[30]  Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity
in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), p. 13.

[31]  Holmes, "Steroscopy and the Stereograph," p. 101.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: