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A Humument in the age of mechanical reproduction (part i)

(Italicized lines in this piece are sourced from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and each corresponds to the section of the original essay in which it appears. This first segment responds to Tom Phillips’s A Humument in light of the first four sections of Benjamin’s piece.)


Tom Phillips’s A Humument enacts not just the dual intrusions of (heretofore perceived as) disparate modes of artistic production—“production” both in the sense of the original act of creation, and in the sense of its replication—but creates, in facilitating this intertwining, a new and amorphous mode as well. It is hard to say from where this mode emerges, other than the two most obvious genres: writing and painting. Both are bound to materiality; both are images of sorts, though the ambiguity of the term “image” when used in reference to text isn’t necessarily useful here. It may be more useful to conceive of the broadest possible definition of “image” when thinking about works classified as “cross-genre” or “hybrid” (more lexicon-based indications of where such works of art stand: that is, on the thin edge of a fence between camps), to allow the all-encompassing sense of the image implied in the painting to apply to text also. By this I mean that the image subsumes text, makes it an element in a framework in which anything—because everything that words can refer to is included—can appear. Is canvas is the scope of semantics, which itself is tied to, and tiered by, the material constraints of its era. Witness A Humument’s five editions and transubstantiation into an iPhone app. The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production. And they are still, for better or worse, changing; what comes next will likewise be called for, and modified by, the particulars of the market and the means it has available. For now, we have the hybrid text extended into the digital realm. Setting aside a conceptualization of Phillips’s project as pure process and the material of its editions the ash left behind as evidence, consider its physicality. Contemplating its existence as an app, here are two possible views: that it has been robbed of physicality, in which case its encasement becomes binary ephemerality, or that its physicality becomes that which projects it, that which holds it—A Humument as book, as app, as waveform held in retina.


In principle a work of art has always been reproducible, though at various points in history the means were absent. Think: a hallway of Mona Lisas, a Grecian urn for every home, the dynasty made common. And what if the frames composing A Humument were disconnected from the apparatus of modern publishing—which thinks in terms of sales, review galleys, advances, and returns on investments—and instead only available in their original forms? What if no copies were made, and no photographs or lithographs either? But the means of reproduction for the project has not been a hypothetical, but an actual. The copy of the fourth edition of the artwork that I hold in my hands is one of thousands of others, each extensions and branch-offs from the roots of the thing, which is in a physical location unknown to me. Or it is in Phillips: in his making the work again, making it on alternate terms and thereby differently—it would be unwarranted to say “anew” in this case because I do not want to presume a linear progression from one edition into the next. It is apparent categorically, but only categorically: to see a connection in terms of released editions is to take as important a continuity of form. This seems right; Phillips himself speaks of his project in terms of a modification of the same text. But how that text leaves the universe of text—how it becomes not so much non-text as un-text, an object unable to escape the vestiges of its past—is also of interest, and form cannot be seen as overriding semantics as much as re-dictating them. With lithography the technique of reproduction reached an essentially new stage: that of maximized confusion between the object-as-made and the object-as-remade. Benjamin concerns himself with film, with its succession of frames; A Humument, too, is such a succession. And with film we have reached the ascension, the fullness of verisimilitude implicit in the hologram—the bringing of the film onto the space of the body so that it resembles the body but is not the body; in Benjamin’s words, it is identical sans the aura of the original. It is possible to see Mallock glimpsing out from behind Phillips’s work, but is the original aura there (and if not, should we care)? In my hands it feels real: but as much real as independent, not leashed to antiquity.


So I am doubtful of the object-as-remade ever really “capturing,” in the language of photography, anything essential about the original from which it is derived, though I’m likewise doubtful that it needs to do so in order to succeed. Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. “It” being its begetter: seen this way—as derivative—it is nothing more than a glorified mirror image, a hologram given weight. To speak of it as having verisimilitude is both right and wrong; it wavers between its own existence and that of its predecessor (or predecessors). But even if the object-as-remade was atomically identical with the object-as-made—here taking the “finished,” or temporarily halted, work of art as being the “object-as-made” because the external viewer encounters it in some form of completed-ness—would it still be authentic, real, actual? Would resemblance to another thing, the object-as-made, diminish or relegate it? Or is it possible to duplicate the authentic, to decode its genome and spurs its generation? Maybe, but it seems more likely that the whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical—and, of course, not only technical—reproducibility. Technical reproduction enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or phonograph record, but it does not grant full access; reproduction reneges on its promise, if it ever made one, to deliver the real. What we have to show for the real are tracings of it: representation of the original work turned into a kind of meta-mimesis. Art imitating art imitating life.

Abel Gance, speaking of film in “Le Temps de l’image est venu”: “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films… all legends, all mythologies and all myths… await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.” Their resurrection, or the resurrection of imitators and resemblances—or, to use more hostile terminology, of their deviants? And where into this picture does authenticity come? Benjamin defines it for us: The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Maybe the corporeality of A Humument viewed through its published editions as a trade paperback interrupt this transmission, or perhaps they alter it, in which case the editions aren’t so much interruptions as developments: each embellishes its prior. But this is the easy way out. To know that A Humument is an ongoing project, a vocational project (to know that it is, in fact, a “project” and not a “finished” thing; to know that it is ongoing) renders blurry its birthplace, both spatially and temporally. It therefore makes moot the debate over authenticity: how is it possible to even ascertain, nonetheless obtain and distribute, the authenticity of an object that transgresses its own timeline? It is by definition inauthentic: it is, after all, authentically inauthentic. It respects no tradition, not even its own; but by this token it doesn’t disrespect them, either—it appropriates from them what it wants and what it needs. What is jeopardized by its constantly-growing substantive duration is its authenticity as object-as-remade, as an artwork that came into being epiphanically. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object, though in disarming its own authority it disarms the authority of its materials. In following the line back from the thousands of published editions to the moment in space and time where Phillips’s brush first touched his canvases, we lose track of authenticity; by making many reproductions [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. This whole—kaleidoscopic, its rivulets of direction and influence practically impossible to delineate.

Walter Benjamin


But something is lost in the transmission; something gets, if not erased, then reduced. If we define the aura of [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be, then Phillips’s project tampers with such a distance. We see not the original text of Mallock’s novel, but a photographic reproduction of it; with any printed edition, what we have is a reproduction of a reproduction—Mallock’s text and Phillips’s editorial painting atop it (though this is to presume, as I pointed out previously, a particular hierarchy of sight). What prompted the conversion of this project into a venue appropriate for mass consumption? Demand, in its rawest form, though qualified by artistic admiration; were it not for the paperback production of A Humument I would have never seen it. And were it not for its conversion into an iPhone app, or its partial publication on the internet, many more might not have seen it, either (if we suppose they are seeing the same “it”). Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. We may or may not be touching this “it,” as true as its reproduction might be to the original set of physical objects it seeks to emulate. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. The object-as-made and the object-as-remade are placed on pedestals of the same height. The aura changes, but changes necessarily, as an afterthought to commodification in the name of a wider audience. Perhaps, like Benjamin, we should see this not as a perversion but as an extension of form: the fact of a new age which has moved out of a worship of images as untouchable symbols, which feels no regret at all in suturing them new, cyborgian bodies out of whatever materials suit its needs.


A divorce from conventionally-conceived notions of authenticity, however, isn’t without its costs. And it is unrealistic to assume that an entirely clean break with categories, regardless of how pyrotechnically collisions between them are orchestrated, is possible. Without the backdrop and bloodline of custom, no deviation from custom would be intelligible; A Humument dilutes this risk of unintelligibility by retaining vestiges of the conventions it adapts and refashions. It is legible to tradition, but troublesome to it. The project can be processed in terms of painting and in terms of poetry, but the assessments each critical vantage-point produces individually is not complete. And it is hard, even, to say if a commiseration of these two critical inheritances could provide a fitting analysis of such a work; nonetheless, these insufficiencies are crucial stage props for the role of the project. The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This seems a reasonable principle (though cf. Eliot’s qualification: “[The poet] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.” So what’s rehashed is rehashed newly, and in a new forum. It’s easy to see how Phillips’s project proceeds along these lines, but at what point do the fluctuating means of reproduction “fold over” and inject themselves back into the artwork, i.e. at what point do they become not means, but methods? Consider again the iPhone app, or the flicker of an LCD summoning Gauguin; consider that mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. The umbilical cord is cut, but by standing back one can see the separate entities it once tied together.

To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. Is the printed text, as the product of a press, a work of art designed with reproducibility in mind—or is it just that the most common form of its embodiment, the alphabet, lends itself easily to visual manifestation? Commodification becomes an aspect of the work itself, becomes a goal: Benjamin conceives of film as unable to be spliced from its mechanics, from the devices that facilitate its presentation. But though the work designed explicitly for reproduction is related to Phillips’s work, with its printed editions and vocation-based origin denying most notions of authenticity admission to its interpretation, it is not its equivalent; reproduction, it is fairly safe to say, was not the original goal or operative assumption of A Humument. To not just depart from tradition but to obliterate it—to clinically excise all ties to ritual and custom—is a conceivable tack to take, though it would hardly be achievable (what semantic vehicles, what modes of expression, are more primal and ingrained than the word or the image?). But supposing such a marked separation from authenticity were possible, it would imply a range of principles vastly dissimilar to those of artworks that, however strongly or weakly, remain tied to tradition. This is because the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics. In other words: an untethering from tradition enables an artwork to be appropriated toward all manners of pragmatism, toward all possibilities of pragmatic aim. The doctrine of its exhibition becomes a lost heritage. Excluding questions of morality or immorality to focus on aesthetics, what’s clear is that such a robust severance from tradition enables an artwork to become (in a value-neutral sense) propaganda—a status A Humument, and its engagement with mechanical reproduction as a tool of its creation and dissemination, approaches but refrains from wholly embracing. Instead, it stays itself against the magnetism of perceived convention, though not without confusing its polarity. And out of such circular motion—creation to reproduction, reproduction to creation—it forges a new aura.