I think that a lot of the misunderstandings about “new media” stem from the misguided assumption that looking at images displayed on a computer is anything like looking at other kinds of images. Obviously, the images you see on your screen are fundamentally different from the “traditional” spectrum of images, like paintings, prints, and photographs in that they are arrangements of 1’s and 0’s transmitted and displayed as electromagnetic radiation. But they also differ substantially from the images produced from other technologies that rely on similar physical properties, like cinema or television. The main difference being when you look at anything on a computer screen (not just an image, but text; and even when you listen to audio) you are necessarily making a copy of that thing as you look at it. Non-networked activity, like word processing, would be impossibly slow with out the ability to make (at least) temporary copies of everything, and networked activity (the Internet) as we know it would cease to function. Imagine if the Internet worked like a lending library: each site or server had a limited number of copies that it could give out at any given time, and people, for example, you had to wait for someone to sign out of Gmail before you could sign in. The way it is now, it’s more like a City Hall: you ask a server for something and it makes you a copy and sends it to you.
What this means for our discussion is that every online collection of images faces essentially the same conundrum as the museum filled with camera-wielding photographers: should we let them make copies? In practice, the question is mostly rhetorical. People are going to make copies whether the institutions that maintain the images want to or not. The question is really what dispositions do those institutions take towards the seer-copier and what does that mean for the future of aesthetic reproduction?
Faced with an extreme version of this crisis in 2009, the National Portrait Gallery of London came up with a novel “solution” that not only didn’t work, but that also ended up unintentionally making a radical argument against existing copy protections.
In 2009, the British National Portrait Gallery rolled out an ambitious project to digitize their entire collection. By the spring of 2009, the gallery had already posted more than 60,000 high-resolution images to their website using a program called Zoomify that allowed users to view the works but not easily download their own copies. That March, Derrick Coetzee, a UC Berekely computer science grad student and administrator on Wikipedia, devised a method to download images from the gallery’s website. Coetzee promptly downloaded 3000 of the gallery’s images and posted them to Wikipedia’s free media archive, Wikimedia Commons. On July 10th, the gallery notified Coetzee that they intended to begin legal proceedings against him through the UK courts for copyright violation. The gallery claimed that although the works in question were in the public domain, the high-resolution photographs of those works were the copyrighted property of the gallery and Coetzee had no right to download or reproduce them without obtaining the proper license. The Gallery offered to drop their claims if Coetzee removed all the images from Wikipedia and “refrained” from downloading any more images. The following week, Erik Moeller, the deputy director of Wikimedia Commons publicly refused to remove any of the images, arguing on both legal and philosophical grounds that such images belonged in the public domain.
Both parties agreed that the paintings in question were in the public domain—they were clearly all so old that their normal copyright had lapsed. And they also implicitly agreed that the core of the legal debate was whether or not a painstaking reproduction of an non-copyrighted image constituted a new copyrightable work. In their initial response to the gallery, Wikimedia summarized the 1998 U.S Appeals court case Bridgeman v. Corel which ruled that a so-called “slavish” reproduction of a work cannot constitute a new work because it is not sufficiently creative or different enough from the original; it fails what is known as the “sweat of the brow” standard. If such “slavish” reproductions constituted new works, the argument goes, how could reproductions by different people be differentiated from each other? How could the copyrights of such “new works” ever be protected if there was no physical way to tell the difference between them? Furthermore what was to stop someone from rephotographing such a “new work” and thus claiming a new copyright for that copy of a copy? For its part the National Portrait Gallery posited that the images represent, “a painstaking exercise on the part of the photographer that created the image in which significant time, skill, effort and artistry have been employed and that there can therefore be no doubt that under UK law all of those images are copyright works…”
And so a bizarre new chapter in the history of photographic reproduction began to unravel.
Historically, photographs had only gained admission into museum collections after the Museum had been able to establish its viability amongst the other High Arts as rare and precious objects. In “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” (full article, pdf) Douglas Crimp diagrams this first phase in the Museum’s campaign to “recuperate the auratic” with regards to photography, where “auratic” means authentic and/or original, i.e. like painting or sculpture. That is, according to Crimp, museums were directly responsible for the “triumph of photography-as-art,” through their post- World War II promotion of American photographers like Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, and Walker Evans. The photographs of these “artists” were made on elaborate enough equipment and their appearance was striking enough that museums could finally see past their practical existence as mere reproductions (of reality, or their photo-negatives) and they could begin to regard them as rarefied Works of Art along with the historic authentic and original Arts. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the museum more or less protected the auratic art-photograph from the onslaught of its postmodern practitioners like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, whose appropriation techniques attempted to mock the originality of any photograph, by quickly including their subversive works into traditional Blue Chip exhibitions.
But when Coetzee’s actions raised the prospect of widespread digital reproduction of the Portrait Gallery’s archival photographs, the Museum had no choice but to incidentally develop a new strategy for protecting the aura of photographs. And here’s where it starts to get absurd.
In order to conserve aura, the National Portrait Gallery borrowed exactly that strategy of appropriation artists (like Levine and Prince) that had originally sought to destroy the myth of the original. In doing so, they arrived at a totally inverted definition of the “auratic” photography. Namely, the Gallery claimed that their photographic reproductions were in fact new, creative works with a unique existence (i.e. “auratic”) not despite but because of their visual identity to the source material. Specifically, the gallery contended that the images constituted new works because in making them, their photographers had expended “time” and “effort” in the service of “artistry”. Since the final goal of such “artistry” is a perfectly transparent reproduction, the more these artistic efforts remain invisible, the more these images become “artistic”.
The Gallery inadvertently ended up recapitulating the formal logic of the ready-made and appropriation art, wherein the work of the artist is signaled not through new visible aesthetic qualities but through invisible, “behind the scenes”, work and conceptual choices, including, above all, the choice to obscure any obvious authorial intervention. Historically, this shift had allowed artists to intercede upon the straightforward production of aura–to problematize any clear (i.e. authentic) path from original “author” to work. Here, however, the Gallery mirrors this avant-garde strategy in an attempt to make a legal argument for strong authorial presence: reproductive verisimilitude paradoxically becomes an argument for auratic authenticity. Put another way, the basic formal strategy of the Gallery is similar to Sherrie Levine’s in her After Walker Evans images, where the artist simply made a copy of famous Evans’ photographs—both simply attempt to reproduce their source images as closely as possible—but the intended outcomes are at odds: Levine uses the strategy of bald appropriation to question the nature of authenticity, whereas the Gallery uses it to claim authentic ownership.
In support of Coetzee, Peter Hirtle, president of the Society of American Archivists, wrote: “The conclusion we must draw is inescapable. Efforts to try to monopolize our holdings and generate revenue by exploiting our physical ownership of public domain works should not succeed.” Here, Hirtle recognizes that the Gallery has conflated physical ownership over an image with ownership over its virtual, intellectual (copy)rights.
So while the Gallery originally claimed Coetzee/Wikimedia has violated copyright law, it’s really the Gallery itself that did the most violence to the basic distinction that copyright set out to make between these two types of ownership.
Barring contemporary questions of fair use, copyright historically allowed an artist to sell a version of a work without having to sell his unique, that is, authentic privilege to the production and reproduction of that work. Therefore, copyright was one of the most powerful means by which aura came to be guaranteed in a world of mechanical (and later, digital) reproduction where copies were extremely easy to make in practice: copyright assured that works could be endlessly reproduced and distributed but only with the permission of the original author, i.e. the maintenance of an “authentic” lineage to the work’s original production.
Legally and logically, then, in the age of reproduction, there is no necessary relationship between the person who owns a work and the abstract intellectual property rights of that work, unless a specific license is arranged otherwise. In the case of the Wikimedia dispute, the copyright of the works in question has been dissipated into the public domain: the Gallery owns the physical work of art but the intellectual rights of reproduction, distribution, etc. belong to the public. Nevertheless, the Gallery tried to leverage its physical monopoly on the works to arbitrate access to their virtual rights, effectively destroying the distinction between the two types of rights; not only does the Gallery prohibit digital reproduction, their website unequivocally states, “we also exert strict controls on all photography in the Gallery, which is allowed only on the understanding that copyright rests with us and that any further reproduction deriving from resulting photographic materials is subject to our written permission.” By prohibiting visitors from making their own reproductions of the source material or sharing the gallery’s reproductions, the Gallery’s policy effectively precludes any of their holdings from ever entering a digital public domain.
The conclusion we have to draw, according the Gallery’s actions, is that the rights to an image are subject less to the rule of copyright law and more to the rule of force: rights “belong” to whoever happens to be able to secure the conditions required to make a reproduction. Here, sheer physical access to an original is made the sufficient condition for the creating a legally unique (i.e. “auratic”) likeness—uncoupled from the intended logic of copyright law, aura becomes a function of what is literally un-authorized reproduction, the very activity that had historically and logically threatened its existence. Thus in a strange twist, the Gallery actually produces the aesthetic conditions it seems to fear the most, mangling the last feasible ways of preserving aura and its legal protections in the age of digital reproduction.
Ironic Epilogue: Facing a protracted legal battle and negative press, the National Portrait Gallery eventually backed away from their complaint against Coetzee and Wikimedia. The Gallery no longer has any high-res images on their website; fortunately, high-resolution images of the museum’s entire collection are available, however, on Wikimedia.
In a museum someone steps between us and a painting to snap a photo. But it’s not just that our view is momentarily blocked, our sight-line is constantly interrupted by something or other in crowded galleries. It’s only with the sound of the shutter that we feel something more intangible and more disturbing has been interrupted; it’s the sound of the silent convenant of proper etiquette being broken. Even the shushed child implicitly understands: museums are temples for looking and contemplation, for the mystical experience of Art. We see the sign outside the gallery, photography prohibited, and we give ourselves a nod because are glad to see the museum enforcing our own sense of propriety. We have forgotten it wasn’t always like this.
The early public museum would have been unrecognizable to today’s audiences. Not only were the earliest 18th and 19th century museums arranged in ways that now seem ridiculous (e.g. all landscapes, regardless of style, crammed side-to-side, floor-to-ceiling, in the same room), they were often imagined as extensions of academic or princely studios meant for use by working artists. For example, the Louvre, the first public museum, reserved first fifty and then seventy percent of its operating hours exclusively for artists who wished to copy from the collection (c. 1790s).
In a widely circulated letter from 1792, J.M Roland, the post-revolutionary French minister of the interior, described similar political ambitions for the newly founded museum: “The museum ought to be open to the whole world and each [person] should be able to place their easel in front of whatever painting or statue in order to draw, paint, or make a model to their liking.” Founded on the rhetoric of the French Revolution, the public museum’s task was to manifest the most literal, material metaphor for the transfer of power from the Royals to the citizens and their republic. The Louvre, of course, had been the palatial residence of the previous Bourbon Monarchy and the early museum’s collection was made up entirely of the artifacts they had collected (the next substantial era of acquisitions was only under another pseudo-Monarch, Napoleon I). More precisely, the founders of the Louvre imagined the public museum as a democratic version of the exclusive painting academies that had come before it. Copying was to be understood as the simplest and most obvious way by which the public could realize this abstract rhetoric of public ownership. Physical possession of the art objects was entrusted to the people’s representation, the State, but virtual possession of the images they depicted was intended to be freely distributed amongst its viewer-copyists.
In what is probably the most famous painting of the early Louvre, Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie in Ruins (1796), the director of paintings, Hubert Robert depicts a fictional post-apocalyptic Louvre empty except for a few forlorn scavengers and a single, heroic copyist who sketches what appears to be the last remaining work in the collection: the famous Apollo Belvedere sculpture. Through what would become the genre of the Sublime Ruin in the Romantic Age, the painting works as a didactic fantasy that projects an idealized version of the present into a sort of paradoxical, what-will-have-been future (the grammatical term for this tense is called, appropriately, the future perfect). That is through this imaginary looking-back onto the future, Robert is very clearly trying to say that the artist-copyist, the person who makes use of the museum like a studio, is the heir apparent to this new institution, and that they alone can sustain its future. Whether it be new interpretations, or slavish copies, whether for academic purposes or in service of commercial demands, the early public museum, as embodied in the Louvre, was a place less for works of art than the work of (making) art. So what happened?
I think the two most important factors that worked on our collective understanding of the “purpose” of a museum began to crop up relatively soon after the turn of the 19th century: the maturation of Idealist Aesthetics and the birth of various public consumer spaces. Idealist Aesthetics maintained, for the first time, that works of Art could be thought of as perfect and complete representations of the human spirit, or nature. Accordingly, the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities of a work of Art could impart true and integral meaning that was separate from and beyond the everyday sensory experiences of life. The prevalence of these ideas, in the artists, museum administrators, and audiences of the time created the widespread belief that the museum was to be regarded as a place for the passive absorption of Truth from these extraordinary objects. The public no longer shared the museum with the metaphysical guru, the (male) Genius Artist, now they must come to it like parishioners to the church to hear Gospel.
In what would seem to be a paradox, museums were also being influenced by new forms of public commercial display and consumption. This was the era of the first World’s Fairs, shopping arcades, departments stores, and mail-order catalogs. And there was a remarkable amount of cross-pollination between the burgeoning museum and these co-developing commercial institutions: commercial catalogs frequently called themselves “Museums”, Museum administrators would proudly point out the price of works in their collections to visitors, the glass vitrine was invented in the arcade and transplanted into the museum as was gas lighting, ect. Were visitors to Grand Expos and World’s Fairs touring museums or commercial conventions? Here factories showed off their new machinery next to motley displays of artifacts from the colonies; geological specimens shared floor space with marvels of urban architecture. In its own way then, public commerce display also encouraged a new type of passive museum spectator based not on the pilgrim but the window-shopper. These new figures of art appreciation must have felt strangely alienated from the material wealth on the display in the museum. On the one hand, they were presented with objects as if they were for sale at a store, that they could be owned for a price; while on the other, they were being persuaded by Republican rhetoric that they already owned these things.
I think this contradiction, which persists today, came about from the shift in the self-presentation of the museum as a space for seeing-copying to one for strictly seeing. While the museum remained happy to cloak itself in the Revolutionary Louvre’s ideal of the publicly shared studio, it increasingly re-orientated its practical structure to serve the interests of the passive, alienated consumer. And it’s my argument that photography offers contemporary museumgoers an unique opportunity to return to the historical, hybridized seeing-copying museum. Put another way,photography,more than any other medium, could allow the general public to reassert their shared ownership over the museum’s material wealth. I think this is because Photography’s minimal definition is as an act of hybrid seeing-copying. Unlike drawing, painting, sculpture, ect. photography necessarily unites the act of looking with the act of representing. You can paint, draw, or sculpt something you aren’t looking at–something that you haven’t even seen, or may not be seeable, but the normal definition of photography requires the artist to make their representation precisely by looking and little else. Additionally, photographic representation can (but doesn’t have to) incorporate a relatively perfect, and infinitely reproducible copy of the image what it regards. Photography can be employed by anyone who looks, and it produces a potential infinity of reproductions.
It’s worth mentioning that though photography is usually either prohibited or severely restricted in today’s museums, almost all museums still theoretically allow visitors to draw, if not paint, from the collection (theoretically because–confirming the above history–almost no one does this or is explicitly encouraged to do this any more). What can we make of this implicit distinction? Especially when photography is technically much closer to the passive activity of seeing than any of these other mediums. I believe the line reveals a hidden institutional mistrust of the political threat of photographic reproduction hinted at above–the last remainder of the museum’s historical prejudice against a medium, whose (other) novel (aesthetic) premises have now been fully incorporated into the canon. Museum photography is the splinter in the eye of the museum’s incorporation of photography. In next week’s post, I’ll explore the reasons for and consequences of this institutional anxiety through a case-study of one museum’s abortive attempt to stifle digital photographic reproduction.
Some relevant sources:
Bennett, Tony, The Birth of The Museum: History, Politics, Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography, a middle-brow art . Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and The Shaping of Knowledge. New York: Psychology Press, 1992.
Poulot, Dominique. Une Histoire des Musées de France. Paris: Decouverte, 2005.
Poulot, Dominique. “La Naissance du Musée” in Aux Armes et Aux Arts! Les arts de la Révolution, 1789-1799, ed. Philippe Bordes et Régis Michel. Paris: Adam Biro, 1998.
de Quincy, Antoine Quatremère. Lettres sur les préjudices qu’occasionnerait aux arts et à la science le déplacement des monuments de l’art de l’Italie, Paris 1796.
A theory: photography alone has the potential to turn the public art museum into a community space. What I mean is that photography, unlike any other medium featured in the art museum, is a field of action where the artist and the viewer can convene: within the museum, there are photographs that have been taken by “artists” on the wall and there is also the potential for visitors to make photographs. We could call both these activities, together, museum photography. I got to thinking about this again because of the current exhibition of Eugene Atget photographs at MoMA, entitled “Documents pour artistes.” The title is borrowed from a sign that hung outside Atget’s studio, which was meant as a sort of proto-artist’s statement meant for all those who entered Atget’s studio: welcome, here are some images you might find some use for. The problem is that MoMA has little interest in actually recreating the ethos of Atget’s original sign: the use of a camera inside the show, like in all other MoMA exhibits, is expressly forbidden*. It’s beyond ironic, it’s manipulative and condescending: MoMA wants to have it both ways.
They want the reputation of being a progressive, arts community that not only exhibits edgy work but brings their savvy audience into that fold. But the last thing MoMA wants is to actually engender a space where the traditional lines between the people who get their work on the walls and those who come to look at it can be blurred. Jesus, just think of the legal liability, alone. You can’t have people groping Marina Abromavic’s nude performers all willy-nilly, like they’re in on it; no, what you do is let them cool their heels on a 5-hour line first, then they can sit in silence for a few minutes across from the artist. MoMA, like most museums, cares primarily about their public image, not images belonging to the public.
This was made painfully, hilariously, clear to me two years ago during MoMA’s 2010/11 Gabriel Orozco retrospective. The main gallery for the exhibition had been wrapped in a blow-up of a photo collage from one of Orozco’s early journals (it was also the cover image for the show’s catalog). The original images in the collage were taken from various National Geographic photo-essays. I dare anyone to show me a documented case of an artist obtaining proper licensing rights to paste some cut-outs into their journal. The photo was pretty clearly an act of so-called “appropriation” art, a century old genre of treating the wide world of images as a public trove for source material (like how Atget imagined his studio should work). And standing right smack-dab in front of the blow-up is that trusty old MoMA stanchion crowned with a little icon of a camera with a red slash through it bearing two words: PHOTOGRAPHY PROHIBITED. The message was clear. Orozco can make illegal copies of images and it’s art, in fact we’ll pay him to do it. But the general public better not get any ideas- those rules don’t apply to you; the best you can do is pay us for a book of these images, and then don’t forget to read the copyright license on the first page which tells you that you still can’t do anything but look. Come on, what do you think this place is? Did you think it was invented to collect a bunch of objects and images all for your sake?
Now there are lots of things artists are given the privilege to do in a museum that audiences are not, and lots of these asymmetries make a lot of sense: the artist Fred Wilson is allowed to re-arrange the museum’s permanent collection; Michael Asher is allowed to demand the museum stay open for 24 hours; I’m sure somewhere a museum has let Kanye West turn a gallery into a night-club. There’s no practical way to let everyone engage with the public space of the museum in these ways, and beyond that there isn’t a convincing political or historical rational for it either.
But I want to make the argument that photography is a special case. For a number of practical, political, and historical reasons photography is a field of activity where museums could and should allow artist and audience to converge and partake in a shared wealth of images and techniques. The public museum was in fact founded as a fiduciary for the general public and photography remains the most feasible way of realizing that historical commitment. In the following posts I’ll make this case in more detail and then I’ll look at a recent bizarre attempt by a museum to defend itself against photographic reproduction that ended up with them unintentionally producing an ingenious piece of conceptual art.
*edit: as a colleague pointed out to me, this is inaccurate and needs clarification: the use of still, non-flash photography for “personal use” in collection galleries is permitted at MoMA. “Personal use” would exclude using any photographs for (publicly and/or commercially) displayed artworks; for this reason, I would argue that “personal use” is a serious blunting of Atget’s “pour artistes”. The contradiction remains for the Orozco show, and all non-collection exhibitions. And the original argument, that museums like MoMA proscribe an unreasonable asymmetry towards “museum photography” vis-a-vis artists and viewers, still holds and will be borne out more clearly by the following analysis.
Below are some early notes for an article I intended to write about the atomic explosion at Hiroshima whose radiation burnt a shadow of the city, at the moment of detonation, into various surfaces. Documentary photographs of the city after the explosion show the spectral imprint of a farm’s picket fence on the scorched fields, of a resident crouching on concrete steps; there is one (above) of a man aside a ladder, reportedly a house painter, blackened into the wood slats of a home.
I’ve decided to abandon this writing project because after I began I realized there was no respectful way to go on answering the questions I posed in my research. Theodor Adorno said there couldn’t be poetry after Auschwitz, I never agreed with this (later in life even he recanted), but I’ve come to the conclusion that there can be no art criticism about Auschwitz. The French film critic Serge Daney came to a similar conclusion in his article “The Tracking Shot in Kapo”. Written with an uncanny mix of lucidity and nostalgia during the final months of his life, the article reflects on an image from an obscure movie about the Holocaust, called Kapo, that Daney has only read about, that he has never seen–that he refused to see his whole life. The shot in question is a slow, elegant tracking shot across an electrified fence onto which one of the characters, Riva, has just thrown herself on to commit suicide. Daney insists that there are some events so horrific that they ought to only be seen through a kind of refusal of sight. Daney doesn’t mean that some events simply cannot be photographed, but that they must be photographed without the sort of obvious aesthetic pleasure, what he calls the “pornographic” quality, of the tracking shot in Kapo. As an example he cites a post-War Japanese film, Ugetsu, in a passage which is worth quoting at length:
In 1959, Miyagi’s death in Ugetsu literally nailed me, staggered, to the seat of the Studio Bernard theatre. Mizoguchi had filmed death as a vague fatality that you were able to see could and could not not happen. One can remember the scene: in the Japanese countryside travellers are attacked by greedy bandits and one of them kills Miyagi with a spear. But he does it almost inadvertently, tumbling around, pushed by a bit of violence or by a stupid reflex. This event seems so accidental that the camera almost misses it. And I am convinced that any spectator of that scene has the same superstitious and crazy idea: if the camera had not been so slow, the event may have happened off-camera and – who knows – may have not happened at all…Shall the camera be to blame? By dissociating the movement of the camera from the movements of the actors, Mizoguchi did the exact opposite of Kapo. Instead of a petrifying glance, this was a gaze that “seemed not to see”, that preferred not to have seen and thus showed the event taking place as an event, ineluctable and indirectly. An event that is absurd and nil, absurd like any accident and nil like war – a calamity that Mizoguchi never liked.
Rereading the Daney now, I’m struck by how often he mentions the tragedy of Hiroshima. Here it’s in his oblique choice of the violent post-War Japanese film Ugetsu; earlier, he lingers on the famous line in Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, when the French protagonist’s Japanese lover tells her despite all her intellectual knowledge of the disaster, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima, Nothing.” Daney meant this as a lesson for filmmakers, but I feel as if it applies equally to those who make the images and those who look at them. This blankness before a photographic image of incomprehensible violence now seems like the only appropriate critical response. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look but it means that we are naive, and worse, cruel to think we understand.
-medium not film but world-out-there, in literalization a metaphor for photography’s effect onto real world; site specificity, only photograph that can’t be copied, moved?
-not a photograph, but a negative for photographs to be made from?
-Historical Avant-garde (rayograms)–cameraless photographs/negatives were a way of removing mediation- establishing that photography was not a technological process but above all else a chemical process of Exposure–act of being photographed is the act of being assaulted by light, extreme form.
-photographic negatives what is happening is play of absence and presence– that a thing is only captured by documenting where it is absent…negative space (negatives), this contradiction especially with atomic photograph where the subjects were both made present and absent by the radiation (“taken” as in a picture and as in by death). marking through absence?
-what is a photograph that immortalizes as it kills?
-an act of violence that automatically documents itself? more or less ethical form of war photography?
Ah Jean Dubuffet
when you think of him
doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower
as a meteorologist
you know how wonderful the 20th Century
— Frank O’Hara, Naptha, 1959
Before Koons built his studio into the proto-Foxconn of painting and before Warhol rounded up a cadre of speed-freaks to sweat over silk-screens in his factory, there was John F. Ohmer. Ohmer was almost certainly the most prolific landscape painter and installation artist of the 20th century.
At his peak he commanded hundreds, if not thousands of other artists in some of the largest-scale paintings and mixed-media installations in history. Ohmer’s prodigious career lasted only a mere three or so years in the mid-40s, during which time all his work centered on the question of flatness–how the flatness of the photographic image affected the flatness of the painted canvas. This single, all-consuming question prefigured a similar turn in aesthetic theory a decade later. Ohmer’s work was never collected, publicly or privately, and it’s entirely possible that none of the paintings he worked on even survived the decade in which they were made. I cannot find a single published photograph of the man.
Better known as Colonel John F. Ohmer of The United States Military, Ohmer was responsible for camouflaging various military bases and war-time factories from photographic aerial reconnaissance on the West Coast during World War II. Among other efforts, Ohmer enlisted the help of Hollywood set-painters to paint giant tarps with bird’s-eye view illustrations of suburban and rural townscapes to be placed over any visible military-industrial compounds. Viewed with the naked eye, up close or even at some distance, the illusion is obvious, but when captured by an aerial photograph, the coverings appear (even to our CGI-jaded eyes) surprisingly realistic.
Ohmer’s camouflage works by deceptively combining a technological feature of photography with one of its contingent social meanings. On the one hand, Ohmer’s work took advantage of a fundamental technological truth about the camera, namely that it’s mono-focal. Photographed objects are rendered in perspective but by a single lens and onto a flat 2D surface. The effect is that the space around and between things looks squashed, especially in cases like aerial shots where the depth of field is very shallow. At the same time for Ohmer’s paintings to work as camouflage when photographed, he had to assume that despite the apparent unreal flatness of any aerial photograph with a shallow depth of field, the enemy still believed in the literal truth of such photographs. This is worth pointing out because this belief in the so-called “reality principle” of photography–that it reproduces reality– is just that, a belief; it isn’t a technological fact of a photograph but a contingent meaning we ascribe to the outcome of its technological facts. Some studies have shown that cultures that are uninitiated to photographs don’t immediately believe in their indexical truth value, while the advent of digital photographic manipulation has seriously eroded even our own faith in their truth. But if Ohmer could count on the Japanese’s belief in the literal truth of photography (and the very existence of their aerial reconnaissance program would have given him reason to do so), he could reliably use the flattening effect of photography to his advantage. That is, as long as the Japanese expected aerial photographs of on-the-ground reality to look flat no matter what, that “reality” could be simulated with an equally flat painted canvass. Ohmer added some three-dimensional props to his tarps, like shrubs and rubber cars, but these were accents to a painted picture that had to be convincing in its own right.
The believability of Ohmer’s paintings rests on the peculiar fact that one medium can, literally, cover-up the shortcomings of another. I think this adds an interesting term to a contemporary dialog in media studies around what’s called “remediation”. In 2000, media theorists Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin coined the term “remediation” to describe what happens when one medium incorporates and reworks the strategies of another, usually older, medium. For example, when a videogame borrows a trope from noir cinema (e.g. L.A Noire). Bolter and Grusin go on to argue that digital media does this either in an attempt to prove itself as more capable of the embedded (redundant) medium or to borrow some of the referenced medium’s nostalgic charm. I think the above story about Ohmer can illustrate another operation of “remediation”: that the embedded medium (here, painting) can absorb and be elevated by some of the formal characteristics of the embedding medium (here, photography). This is another way to understand the illusion of Ohmer’s camouflage: the flat painting absorbs the reality principle of the flat photograph that captures it and therefore presents as real. Our means of understanding nestled media is such that we instinctively attribute the formal principles on display to the “last” medium, to the one we are engaging with directly. Think about how we look at a black and white photograph of something, even if we have never seen the depicted object before we are trained not to assume that it is actually black and white, but rather that the medium’s limitations have rendered it that way. Exception: when I was a kid, I asked my mom for a black and white dog like Lassie.
The critic Roland Barthes recognized something like this when he wrote in Camera Lucida (1980) that our naive belief in the trustworthiness of photographs “innocents” a photograph’s contents. Instead of “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” the principle is something like “a chain is only as strong as its last link”. The contemporary artist Clement Valla has produced a series of images, Postcards from Google, which revisits this paradoxical effect. Valla has collected various instances where Google Earth has tried and failed to reconcile satellite photographs of a contoured surface like a hilly road or a suspension bridge onto a 3D terrain map. Google’s problem stems from those that Ohmer tried to exploit: there is no good way to reproduce height/depth from a single bird’s-eye view photograph.
The British actually came up with an ingenious solution this problem during World War II. Under the code-name Operation Crossbow, British pilots conducted a series of photographic reconnaissance missions over Nazi occupied territories, but instead of taking one photograph of each site they took two, offset to partially overlap. The two images were then recombined to form a single “3D” image in a way similar to how 3D movies are processed today. The resulting images allowed the British to accurately spot the protrusions of German V1 and V2 rockets saving untold lives.
It may sound strange to call this a story about wartime photography, because we usually reserve that term for the work of photographers who make war their content in some obvious way. In this case, I’m barely even talking about photographs perse: from the lost experiments of Civil War Balloonists to the Japanese who never actually flew missions over California, the photographs I’m interested in are essentially theoretical ones. But I think this is exactly what lets us get closer to the real stuff of the history of photography, because this history both precedes and exceeds any given image, it’s about wrapping our heads around bigger questions concerning the historical production of forms and meaning.
Check back next week for the second part of this series where I’ll explore the accidental rediscovery of camera-less photography in the War’s dark conclusion.
I once read that the famous American photographer Edward Weston was employed by the government as a spotter during World War II. At home atop the Carmel Highlands, where many of his most well known photographs were taken, Weston and his wife sat with binoculars scanning the horizon for Japanese submarines.
It’s a story I’ve always found evocative, one that I made an effort to hold on to though I couldn’t have said exactly why or what for: an answer that convinced me there was some question I needed to figure out how to ask.
Recently though I’ve begun thinking about the story as a sort of parable that can illustrate a certain unconventional approach to understanding the role of photography in World War II– not an answer, then, but a lesson on how to ask questions.
World War II is still something like the Ur-text for technologically deterministic theory–its historians can find the substantial refinement, if not the genesis of almost every post-War media technology in this or that military program. This week and next, I want to use this story about Weston–the Spotter’s Parable– to propose another critical model. This is because it isn’t a story about how some technology was developed in the military and then moved into Art; it’s a story about how socio-political conflict provokes the improbable folding together of both those worlds.
When Weston began to work as a spotter, he relied on exactly those things–the unique topography of his environment and his visual keenness–that define his photography. And though I won’t go so far as to say that there was no difference between Weston’s spotting and photography, it is also simplistic to say that he was always doing one or the other: when he was looking for submarines he was still using his position (literally and metaphorically) as a photographer, and vice versa. As such, World War II wasn’t (just) a violent incubator for new media technologies that would go on to have importance in avant-garde aesthetic or critical fields, it was an experimental field where aesthetics and politics mixed. But I don’t want to confuse this with the autistic fetishism of the Futurists who marveled at the aesthetic virtuosity of World War I’s killing machines–my parable doesn’t abstract or glorify war, it weaves war back into a human history of seeing and feeling.
Check back later in the week for the first post in this series.
“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”
I’ve made the argument that aesthetic technologies and techniques are ultimately derived from socio-political behavior and that artists should look to these emergent habits to discover new forms of art-making. Maybe this is obvious but this means that I think “Art” is the last place an artist (or anyone for that matter) should look for inspiration. So I want to spend sometime exploring unconventional sources for contemporary aesthetic forms.
For a while now I’ve been fascinated with the aesthetics of conspiracy theories. Though conspiracy theories exist from other times and places, they are predominantly a product of the last sixty years of American history/media. Conspiracy theorists also make up one of the only mass-cultural aesthetic communities that remains a community of amateurs, uninterested in and uninteresting to commercialization. Yes, people sell books, movies, and t.v. shows based on conspiracy theories but those products represent only the tiniest fraction of the creative work in a field that is largely maintained by hobbyists who work and distribute their work for free. In historical terms, then, conspiracy theories represent one of the greatest undiscovered folk art movements of modern America.
The most popular targets for theories–the moon landing, the JFK assassination, 9/11– are also, not coincidentally I think, the most dramatic photographic events in American history. More specifically, they are all distinguished by the huge differential between those who actually witnessed these events and those who witnessed them (in some cases, simultaneously) through photography. Conspiracy theorists are fundamentally concerned with the difficulties of the mass extension of historical truth through photography; their theories necessarily, become experiments in photographic comprehension. For in order to overturn a mainstream opinion, which itself is largely based on photographic evidence, conspiracy theorists must propose new ways of seeing and understanding these images if they are going to be persuasive. Because they are also almost always amateurs without privileged access, they work with the shared resource of public images and rarely reveal totally new content. Their work is the extreme formalization of the principles of remix culture into a research sub-culture.
Aesthetically, then, conspiracy theories are a rich source of formal experimentation. In this context, I don’t care at all if a given conspiracy theory is true or even plausible–the content of theories is besides the point, it’s their formal innovations that interest me.
Above is a video of a video processing technique developed by the youtube user femr2. According to femr2, the technique, which creates “Smearograms”, can reveal otherwise imperceptible details in videos. Femr2 developed this processing technique for the specific needs of the so-called 9/11 “Truther” movement, a loosely affiliated community of (largely) amateur investigators devoted to disproving various parts of the official 9/11 story.
To create his Smearograms, femr2 first divides the image plane into a series of single pixel-wide columns, then he dedicates each frame of the video to one of these columns, showing that column’s changes over time, left to right within a single frame. It is essentially a series of snapshots–each frame of the video diagrams the progression of a single vertical column of pixels as it changes through the duration of the original video. Successive frames of the Smearogram move from left-to-right in the picture plane, column by column, so that the length (number of frames) of the final Smearogram is a function of the original video’s width in pixels.
Formally, this amounts to nothing less than the total inversion of the normal conventions of cinematography: space and time reverse roles. Usually in any photographic image, a given frame is expected to represent an illusionary two or three dimensional space; movement from the left of the frame to the right “represents” horizontal movement, movement up and down, vertical movement. The passage of time is reproduced by the linear presentation of frame after frame. If this sounds like a confusing way to explain how this works, it’s because it is so obvious we don’t even think about it: in normal film/video space is space and time is time. But in Smearograms space turns into time and time into space. The left to right (x) axis of a Smearogram frame shows changes over time to a single column of space, while each successive frame represents not elapsed time but spatial movement from one vertical pixel-column to the next.
Femr2’s formal innovation deserves to be thought of in terms of some of the great experiments of avant-garde filmmaking. I think, for example, we could productively compare femr2’s work with Gordon Matta-Clark’s short film City Slivers (1973), which was included in Peter Eleey’s remarkable 9/11 exhibition at P.S.1.
Using only in-camera editing, City Slivers juxtaposes various vertical slivers of New York City within a single frame. Cars wind their way through traffic; two revolving doors refract thin swatches of the street; a barge plies the east river, bathed in afternoon light. And in one of the final shots, taken from atop the newly finished Twin Towers, two horizontal black strips slowly recede to the edges like a curtain to momentarily reveal the south-facing skyline.
To include femr2 in the tradition of experimental filmmaking isn’t to validate the speculative content of his project. I happen to think the ideological content of these videos is nonsensical and worse, that manipulating the documentation of tragedy, though well precedented in Art History, is ethically suspect . But I don’t think this discredits the form.
Instead, I think such conspiracy theories are quintessential examples of how the social and political activity of a community generates new aesthetic techniques. For this reason, Smearograms seem far more interesting than any similar work of experimental but intentional “Art”. Smearograms illustrate the fundamentally open-ended and underdetermined meaning of any given technology (here, rudimentary digital-editing software and Youtube) as it exists “out there” in the real socio-political fabric. There is no accounting for what a given technology can or will do before it enters this field, all meaning is contingent on use. To whatever degree the “Art World” self-consciously identifies its techniques as useless (i.e. “art for art’s sake”), its members can only hope to engage with technology when they remain open to learning from those who develop meaning through everyday use. So finally, it’s these amateur, utilitarian aesthetic communities at-large that are literally the most experimental because they alone risk new tentative definitions of technologies without concern for historical trends or markets.
Two weeks ago, Kodak, the company that drove film photography for 131-years, filed for chapter 11 in order to restructure as a digital printing specialist. This week the Columbia Journalism school received an 18 million dollar donation to establish an institute devoted to digital media innovation. Both times, the first thing I thought of was the above image. It accompanied a ridiculous NY Times article last Spring that proclaimed “3-D Avatars Could Put You in Two Places at Once”! The part that stuck in my mind was a tiny detail in the image–nestled in the corner of the CG-conference room is what must be a video-camera, of the type that is commonly used in real conference rooms to broadcast the meeting to a screen somewhere else. But this was a virtual video-camera inside a virtual conference room all for a virtual meeting. So what was the camera doing there? Somehow this question never gets old. And when I read these two recent stories I realized it’s actually a very serious question: what is the camera doing there?
Let’s start with the obvious art writers’ party line on the Kodak/Columbia life-and-death see-saw. We could easily declare the death of analog and the rise of digital–this thing kind of writes itself, just tack on a “kids these days will never understand real photography” angle or a “computer’s will solve everything” angle, and either way the conclusion is essentially the same: photography is dead, long live photography!
I think photographers and those who write about them are comfortable rehashing this debate every few years because its an easy opposition–analog vs. digital–that actually works to preserve their common faith in the permanent value of photography. Preoccupied with the question of what kind of photography will exist in the future, we avoid the difficulty of asking the more threatening question: will any kind of photography exist in the future?
So this is what I want to ask specifically in terms of photojournalism–not how journalists will take pictures in the future but if they will at all.
The contemporary threat to the general practice of camera-based photography is more obvious when you look at commercial and entertainment photography, where computer-generated photorealism is probably less than a decade away from providing near-universal aesthetic and economic incentives over “live-action” and camera-based methods. But the digitization of social and political life threatens to discard the attendant field of photojournalism as well. As more and more social, economic, and political life is given over to non-visual informational networks, the needs, desires, and abilities to photograph that life decrease proportionately.
What iconic visuals (if any) will there be from the historic anti-SOPA/PIPA internet strike last week? What will be the front page visual for some future act of cataclysmic cyber-terrorism? They might be screenshots. They might be info-graphics. But they won’t be photographs. To be sure, a large portion of world events were never available to photography, e.g. the abstract vagaries of markets, most advances in the sciences, ect. But only recently has the political sphere ceased to have the type of reliable physical presence necessary for photography. I think this means that the cultural value of photography will also necessarily shift in the coming decades. Nothing about the digital revolution (so far) has substantively changed the fact that camera-based photography is the process of fixing luminous reflections of the physical world. But despite or maybe because of this, this type of photography finds itself fundamentally changed. Camera-based photography can no longer be considered to be the medium of historical documentation because much of history may no longer avail itself to the camera. It’s a kind of inverted parallax effect: the movement of the object (history) produces the apparent displacement of the viewing subject (the camera).
Case in point: a documentary by Ben Mendelsohn on one of the world’s largest internet exchange centers, 60 Hudson st.. The short film profiles the giant data center that resides within a nondescript brick building in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood. The center serves as one of the internet’s largest switching-posts; in 2010, Google paid 1.9billion dollars to buy a similar data center nearby. The premise of the documentary is that 60 Hudson St. is proof that, despite what we think, the Internet is a physical thing made up of wires, terminals, ect. Interviews with computer scientists and employees at the center are juxtaposed with photographs of the server’s material “guts”. OK. But what are we actually looking at? To that end, the film also intersperses clips of the city’s bristling urban streets to draw an analogy between the two types of infrastructure. The social and political content of urban locomotion is a distinctly visual and visceral phenomenon that lends itself (and possibly even owes its parallel development) to the camera; this is something even the earliest filmmakers grasped. But the physical stuff of the Internet bears no visual marks of its social and political activity. The base technology of the Internet offers nothing to the camera and in turn images of it offer nothing to us, save the awe of incomprehensibility: the mute image of the technological sublime. As one of the disembodied voice of one of the center’s engineers narrates early on: “When you sit down and think about how much bandwidth and traffic is going through a site like this it will kind of boggle your mind, but there’s no time for that.”
That isn’t to say such useless images have to be useless– only that they have to be worked into a more coherent critical framework. The post-Marxist critic Benjamin Buchloh has tried to construct such a framework around Thomas Struth’s most recent photographs of various technological sites around the world. Buchloh essentially recycles a thesis he had developed for Struth’s earlier urban photography, which had argued that the barren streets of those black and white urban portraits spoke to the social dysfunction of the contemporary urban environment, that they were like solemn cenotaphs for some lost socio-political body that had been evacuated from the revolutionary streets of yore. Buchloh sheds the Marxist nostalgia from his discussion of these new photographs, writing simply, “by confronting their technological incommensurability with the curiosity of the photographic eye, these images suddenly seem to contest the credibility of the photographic image, or to challenge the continuing functions of photography itself.” Buchloh’s prognosis is typically dour but it points to what might finally be a productive advance for our understanding of documentary photography. For a long time various critics have sought to rhetorically undermine the naive “credibility” of the so-called documentary photograph but the emergence of invisible politics (can invisibility emerge?) actually manifests this critique as an ineluctable condition. It doesn’t matter if we believe in the documentary power of photographs when the world refuses to have its picture taken.
Even though I’m not an artist, I conceive of my projects like artworks: the content needs to reflect intelligently on its form, not pretend it doesn’t exist. From the beginning of my work here, I decided that the point was not just to write about topics relevant to a Camera Club on a blog but to try and use the formal proposition of a Camera Club with a blog to try and understand contemporary photography. So I want to ask the simplest version of this formal question: what relevancy does camera-based photography have in the contemporary art of today?
The term contemporary art (not Contemporary Art, the periodized movement) means a responsibility to respond to emerging aesthetic conditions. Recently these conditions have been overdetermined by digital virtual innovations meaning that contemporary art has been easily elided with “new media” art. The fundamental assumption of most “new media” art is that to respond to virtualized digital environment, it need take place within that environment. It’s obvious why camera-based photography has struggled to find its place in this narrow definition of the contemporary: a camera is a device that both exists in and (usually) requires a physical environment.
I have a problem with this definition of contemporary/”new media” , not (just) because it leaves no place for photography but because it risks implying that digital aesthetics is an autonomous space that spontaneously creates its own conditions and has no bearing on our material world. This seems to be why the earliest digital art communities were typically geared towards virtual utopian projects: they imagined their world was literally a no-place cut-off from the “real” world. A newer generation of artists allow for the “real” world to influence the aesthetics of the virtual world, but not the other way around. Artists like Cory Arcangel or the 0100101110101101.org collective are preoccupied with producing digital equivalents to moments in the history of art or material culture. This type of art basically follows from the computer-science discipline of “Virtual Reality”, which is specifically interested in the recontextualization/reproduction of a material, “real” world phenomenon into a digitized/virtualized form.
In order to open a space for photography and a dialog between real and virtual, I’m suggesting a new critical approach, also borrowed from computer-science, called “Augmented Reality”.
Augmented Reality, or AR, is a relatively new direction for interfacing with digital computing. Instead of imbedding the user into the immaterial, virtual environment of the computer, AR projects parts of that virtual world into our physical world. An AR equipped device simultaneously captures a live image and renders into that image some computer-generated artifact. Using different forms of gesture and spatial recognition, the device lets the user and their environment interact with the computer-generated rendering as if it were physically present in the user’s space. It’s essentially an interactive hologram that can only be seen when you look through the screen of your device.
As I see it, the formal principles of Augmented Reality, extracted from their use in videogames and cybernetics, can be an incredibly useful critical tool for contemporary art, especially photography. As a formal critique, AR means thinking about the ways in which the digital world intervenes in the material world; how the social, political, and aesthetic innovations of digital communities change the way the material world works and how we look at it.
It is a well worn critical insight that the advent of cheap viewfinder cameras changed the way we looked, even when we weren’t holding a camera, and I believe the same thing holds true for the effect of digital computing on material culture. Johnathan Crary makes a similar point specifically about vision in his book Techniques of the Observer, when he writes that a wide range of emerging technologies, “are relocating vision to a plane severed from a human observer.” While this is basically true, it only talks about vision and in a way that seems rather technologically deterministic to me; “severing human observers” has a sort of violent Skynet undertone to it, as if suddenly these new technologies are enslaving us.
I think the benefits of thinking in terms of AR is that it provides the opposite perspective; it reintegrates technological innovation back into the fabric of human life, and in doing so reveals the origins of the former in the latter.
This is important because technological determinism (of which most “new media” indulges in) is a kind of technological fetishism that works to replace relationships between people with relationships between technologies. Digital culture subjects us to all kinds of outrageous social, political, and economic limitations that we would never accept in “real” life but that we take for granted when they are presented as the byproduct of technological systems. For example, would you consent to the USPS selling the right to look at all your mail to advertisers so that they could read it and figure out what specific products you were likely to buy? I doubt it, but that’s exactly what Google Mail does. Would you continue to trust a company that surreptitiously hid a chemical in your medicine to make sure you stayed dependent on their products? Sony BMG admitted to doing something similar in 2005 when it was discovered that they had purposely infected users’ computers with malware as part of a digital rights management scheme. Would you buy a new car from a dealer who threatened to sue you if you tried to resell it? Microsoft tried that one.
Augemented Reality is a strategy to question and set in tension the principles of digital culture by (re)introducing them into the material world from whence they come. In doing so, AR lets us critique not just new ways of seeing, but changes in the aesthetics of politics and social behavior as well. So, what does AR photography look like?
In his series Deconstruction of a Mountain, Andrea Galvani photographs natural environments and then reinserts his prints back into the environment to be photographed again. For Galvani, the act of photography is understood as a feedback loop; an iterative process that travels back and forth across virtual and real space, becoming more and more complex as it picks up traces of the logic of each, like a tone that gathers distortion as it courses through an audio-loop. The structure works according to the principles of Augmented Reality wherein there is an interface or exchange between real and virtual spaces. The literal placement of digital photographs into their physical site moves in one direction (virtual–>real) while the final photograph moves the image in the other direction, back into the virtual space of digital photography (real–>virtual). This interface subjects the history of nature photography to the decontextualization and manipulation of digital photography just as it subjects digital photography and printmaking to the romanticism and site-specificity of nature photography.
In a series of untitled photographs from 2008, Tim Hyde collages together several fixed-frame shots of a man holding a piece of cardboard to create a single coherent but impossible photograph of space. A poetic proof of the inter-dependence of space and time, Hyde’s photos compress time to produce various geometric constructions that recall 3D models in both their blank texture and paradoxical shapes. Hyde takes advantage of the formal possibilities of Augmented Reality to virtually manipulate real space but without recourse to the actual technology–Hyde physically cuts and pastes the photographs himself. As such, his photographs speak to the potential for the analog “real” world to learn new strategies from virtual innovation and experimentation. This touches on the potential social and political import of AR theory: the liberatory tools of digital communities like Facebook or Twitter, so vaunted in the recent Arab Spring, are potentially available to communities that are totally without access to such technologies; what we need is creative translators.
A relatively early pioneer in Augmented Reality photography, Jim Sanborn, has been making large-scale nature photographs that incorporate computer-generated patterns of projected light since 1995. Referencing the computer assisted drawings (CAD) drawings used by topographers, Sanborn’s Topographic Projections series document light projections onto landforms that can be measured in square miles. Instead of mapping these virtual contours digitally in virtual space, Sanborn moves the operation into real space unsticking the content (a contoured mountain range) from its usual means of production (auto-CAD). The works open an uncanny gap between what an image appears to be (a digital manipulation) and what it actually is (a photograph of a luminous phenomenon).
Today the Internet has joined together to give us all a crash course in participatory politics. With two belligerent “anti-piracy” bills, SOPA and PIPA, waiting in the wings of Congress, a number of websites have turned their home pages into soapboxes to rally their users against the legislation. This controversy belongs to the decade’s history of sporadic but intense public outbursts of an interminable battle between the aging American content industry that distributes movies and music and the international network of digital communities that jeopardizes their business model. Metallica suing Napster, the arrest of PirateBay operators, even the Wikileaks controversy represents a version of this conflict between the two historic models of distribution. It’s like a giant endless bar fight that periodically spills into the street: one guy gets arrested from time to time, but more people are always piling in.
What is actually sustaining this brawl? How could it ever end? I think the history of photography can provide some clues.
First off, I don’t think the biggest obstacle facing the debate over digital piracy is that it suffers from some fatal disagreement over what to do with new technology, or even some kind of inter-generational gap in understanding about what such technology is capable of doing. I actually don’t think the biggest problem comes from disagreements of any kind. It’s the opposite. I think the digital piracy debate comes to loggerheads because the two sides tacitly agree on one faulty premise: that this debate is one about new technology. Beyond all their disagreements about specific policy, each side grounds their argument in the rhetoric of technological novelty and that’s what keeps their blinders on. For the conservative content-providers (e.g. the motion picture and recording industry associations) aggressive changes have to be made to existing copyright and piracy law to combat all the new threats digital media poses; the “progressive” community of artists and critics oppose such regulation on the basis that it undercuts all the new potential promised by digital media. Each side points to the same set of “emergent“ digital features–things like file-sharing, streaming, ect.–to support opposite conclusions about what ought to be done.
Recent technology has created new modalities for viewing, sharing, and repurposing and certain 20th century systems of content production and distribution feel threatened for the first time, but the shape of this socio-political crucible is timeless. And this is what the debate is missing: it isn’t about this or that technology its about the long-term social trends that produce the technology.I think you can pick any moment in the history of aesthetics and it will reveal the basic tension of the digital piracy issue: a confrontation between the rights of those who see and those who make things seen. I want to talk about the birth of photography in this context, not because I think it is any more relevant to digital debate than say the birth of the printing press, but because I think the history of photography, like every other medium, has specific features that can highlight corresponding details in the contemporary debate over digital piracy.
With that in mind, I want to ask an incredibly stupid question: what is the medium of photography?
There’s an easy case for saying something like photo-sensitive film or paper, or some combination of that and the “apparatus” of the camera. What else? Art Historian Rosalind Krauss makes the argument that a medium isn’t primarily determined by the physical make-up of its tools, but rather by any number of what she calls “technical supports.” The use of the term technical is a little confusing here because Krauss doesn’t mean any concrete machine or device but a related “systems of rules” or “conventions” controlled by more abstract entities, like the film industry or car culture. Accordingly, the medium of an artist like William Kentridge, who draws sinewy animations with graphite on paper, could be said to be the conventions of cel-based animation rather the his base physical tools. Thinking about a medium this way lets us move beyond discussing it as a function of technological tools and their material qualities; moreover, it lets us see how such tools actually develop in response to social conventions (“technical supports’)–how, for example, tracing paper comes to mean something different after the invention of animated cartoons.
So what’s the medium of photography? We could say it is, among other things, the convention of reproduction–not just the convention of making copies of any given negative, but also using photography to make reproductions of other works of art, like photos of paintings or sculpture. Nothing about physical qualities of what we call photography demands that it be used for reproduction in either of these two senses, its features seem to make such tasks easy, but the discovery of photo-sensitive chemicals didn’t force us to develop photography in that way anymore than the discover of colored pigments forced us to make easel paintings, instead of jars of colored water.
The reproductive possibilities of photography came to define the medium because its users wanted it that way. And while it would get me fatally off-subject to explain why I think they wanted it that way, all we have to do is look at the early criticism of photography to know that the medium was widely understood in terms of its conventions of reproduction rather than its physical features. The serious problem “the Arts” had with photography wasn’t that its artists used lenses or chemically-treated paper (painters use both of these too), but that its “art” seemed to be nothing more than the possibility of unlimited, unaltered reproduction. Walter Benjamin summarized the threat this posed to the traditional arts in his famous essay “the Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” where he coined the term “aura” to describe the value a non-reproducible art object held in distinction to that of a photograph. Aura was a function of originality, of a work’s ability to confidently show that it had a straight-forward relationship to the original individual and historical context that made it–in other words, to have aura was to have authenticity. The problem was, photography not only made aura-less images of the world (because they could be infinitely copied from their negatives), it also drained formerly unique works like paintings and sculptures of their here-and-nowness–their aura–by fixing their likeness in a reproducible form. To compensate for the loss of aura, Benjamin thought the photograph’s reproductive capabilities offered untold new potential for the “social function of art,” that Art’s production and reception could be greatly democratized now that its uniqueness (rarity) could no longer be protected. But for many of his contemporaries, the loss of auratic “authenticity” was, at least initially, a threat to the basic meaning (let alone monetary value) of all Art.
Doesn’t this mourning for authenticity continue today? How often today do we hear the complaint that “no one” sees works of art in their “original” form anymore, and that “no one” attributes any value to originality or authenticity anymore?
Contemporary anti-piracy advocates express these concerns as a function of money, or euphemistically as questions of “intellectual property”, rather than in the aesthetic terms of Benjamin’s times, but the complaint is basically the same thing: unfettered reproduction destroys the authenticity and therefore value of “art” (congrats, Justin Bieber, you’ve made it!).
The thing is, for the most part, the “progressive” opposition disagrees with the math but not the formula, they often say: yes, copying a work might theoretically threaten the value of that work, but you can’t really copy the whole work, so stop trying to limit technology (which has other important functions) and start focusing on increasing the value of the unique remainder that can’t be captured by it. On the one hand, people point to bands like Radiohead who sell expensive (non-digitally reproducible) physical packages for their work or continue to make money off live performances; and on the other, they encourage companies that provide uniquely valuable service features like fast, reliable web stores (iTunes, Amazon, ect.).
Both sides cling to the idea that for something to be valuable it need be rarefied, or at least “authentic”– but what they rarely discuss is that over the course of the history of man-made art, value has only recently come to be defined this way. As weird as it sounds, it is very hard to find evidence for the existence of our idea of “authenticity” before the 16th century in Western culture. Up until that relatively recent point, no one really cared if a work of art was authentic or not; it was far more important that a work of art fulfill its sacred function and to do that a work of art needed only superficial resemblance to the “original”–a painting of the Virgin Mary that everyone knew was made yesterday could enjoy the same cultural value as the mythical original sketch of Mary made by St. Luke as long as it looked the part.
My point is: if authenticity could suddenly enter the picture, why couldn’t it suddenly leave? It happened with photography. It took a while, but no one really questions photography’s place in the High Arts any more, not even the auction houses. Though questions of fakes and copies still swirl for particular works, in terms of medium, the Art world has made its peace with passing of authenticity. The world of digital content is learning a similar lesson the hard way–SOPA and PIPA are the death-knells of an industry that is being dragged kicking and screaming, not into the “future” but into an epiphany of the past. The reason it’s hard to see this connection at first is because no one is thinking critically about what the medium of digital media is–both parties in this debate assume the medium of any given digital technology is the new technology itself, it’s not. The medium is the set of social and political conventions that we have developed around sharing generally and these have their roots in the historical crises of political aesthetics (e.g. the emergence of photography). This is why these types of debates are always over before they even start–realistically, only a fool (or someone who is paid to act like one) thinks that digital piracy can be stopped, that the content industry can go back to the “good ole’ days”. When a “new” technology emerges to threaten the status-quo it is already too late to put the genie back in the bottle. The emergence of a technology like peer-to-peer file-sharing wasn’t the first step in a process of innovations about sharing it was one of the last. Technologies are prefigured by the demands of their communities; a medium produces its physical surrogate. By the time an industry gets around to addressing a given problem as a technological one, they are already too late.
The medium isn’t the message. The medium was the message, and they missed it.