Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation
TOPOLOGY OF THE AURA
The examples above are particularly relevant to the theme of art documentation because they use famous works from the history of art in a new way - not as art but as part of documentation. At the same time they also reveal the procedures by which art documentation is produced, along with the difference between the artwork and art documentation. But one important question remains unanswered: if life is only documented by narrative and cannot be shown, then how can such a documentation be shown in an art space without perverting its nature? Art documentation is usually shown in the context of an installation. The installation, however, is an art form in which not only the images, texts, or other elements of which it is composed but also the space itself plays a decisive role. This space is not abstract or neutral but is itself a form of life. The siting of documentation in an installation as the act of inscription in a particular space is thus not a neutral act of showing but an act that achieves at the level of space what narrative achieves at the level of time: the inscription in life. The way in which this mechanism functions can best be described by using Walter Benjamin's concept of aura, which he introduced precisely with the intention of distinguishing between the living context of the artwork and its technical substitute, wh!ch has no site or context.
Benjamin was famously one of the first to engage in theoretical reflection on the triumph of technical reproduction over living production, which was just beginning to emerge at the time. His essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" became famous primarily thanks to its use of the concept of aura, which Benjamin used to describe the distinction between an original and a copy in cases where perfect technical reproduction was possible. Since then, the concept of aura has had a long career in philosophy, principally in the celebrated phrase "loss of aura," which characterizes the fate of the original in Modernism. This emphasis on the loss of aura is, on the one hand, legitimate, and clearly conforms with the overall intention of Benjamin's text. On the other hand, it begs the question of how it the aura is originated at all before it can or must be lost. This, of course, does not mean aura in the general sense, as a religious or theosophical concept, but in the specific sense used by Benjamin. A close reading of Benjamin's text makes clear that the aura only originates by virtue of the modern technology of reproduction - that is to say, it emerges in the same moment as it gets lost. And it emerges for the same reason for which it gets lost.
In his essay, Benjamin begins with the possibility of perfect reproduction, in which it is no longer possible to distinguish materially between the original and the copy. Again and again in his text, Benjamin insists on this perfection. He speaks of technical reproduction as a "most perfect reproduction" which "may not touch the actual work of art" (5). Now, it is certainly open to doubt whether the techniques of reproduction that existed at the time, or even today, ever really achieved such a degree of perfection that it was impossible materially to distinguish between the original and the copy. For Benjamin, however, the ideal possibility of such perfect reproducibility, or a perfect cloning, is more important that the technical possibilities that actually existed in his day. The question that he raises is: Does the extinction of the material distinction between original and copy mean the extinction of this distinction itself?
Benjamin answers this question in the negative. The disappearance of any material distinction between the original and the copy - or,at least, its potential disappearance - does not eliminate another, invisible but no less real distinction between them: the original has an aura that the copy does not. Thus the aura is necessary as a criterion for distinguishing only when the technology of reproduction has rendered all material criteria useless. And this means that the concept of aura, and aura itself, belongs exclusively to modernity. Aura is, for Benjamin, the relationship of the artwork to the site in which it is found - the relationship to the external context. The soul of the artwork is not in its body; rather, the body of the artwork is always found in its aura, in its soul. This other topology of the relationship between the soul and the body traditionally has a place in gnosis, in theosophy, and similar schools of thought, which it would not be appropriate to pursue here. The important realization is that for Benjamin the distinction between original and copy is exclusively a topological one - and as such it is entirely independent of the material nature of the work. The original has a particular site - and through this particular site the original is inscribed into history as this unique object. The copy, by contrast, is virtual, siteless, ahistorical: from the beginning it appears as potential multiplicity. To reproduce something is to remove it from its site, to deterritorialize it - reproduction transposes the artwork into the network of topologically undetermined circulation. Benjamin's formulations of these ideas are well known: "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its here and now, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be" (6). He continues: "These 'here' and 'now' of the original constitute the concept of its authenticity, and lay basis for the conception of a tradition that has up to the present day passed this object along as something having a self and an identity" (7). The copy lacks genuineness, therefore, not because it differs from the original but because it has no location and consequently is not inscribed in history.
Thus, for Benjamin, technical reproduction as such is by no means the reason for a loss of aura. The loss of aura is introduced only with a new aesthetic taste - the taste of the modern consumer who prefers the copy or reproduction to the original. Today's consumer of art prefers the art to be brought - delivered. Such a consumer does not want to go off, travel to another place, be placed in another context, in order to experience the original as original. Rather, he or she wants the original to come to him or her - as in fact it does, but as a copy. When the distinction between original and copy is a topological one, then the topologically defined movement of the viewer alone makes this distinction. If we make our way to the artwork, then it is an original. If we force the artwork to come to us, then it is a copy. For that reason, the distinction between original and copy has, in Benjamin's work, a dimension of violence. Benjamin speaks not just of the loss of aura but of its destruction (8). And the violence of this destruction of aura is not lessened by the fact that the aura is invisible. On the contrary, a material injury to the original is much less violent, in Benjamin's view, because it still inscribes itself in the history of the original by leaving behind certain traces on its body. The deterritorialization of the original, its removal from its site by means of bringing it closer represents, by contrast, an invisible and thus all the more devastating employment of violence, because it leaves behind no material traces.
Benjamin's new interpretation of the distinction between original and copy thus opens up the possibility not only of making a copy out of an original but also of making an original out of a copy. Indeed, when the distinction between original and copy is merely a topological, contextual one, then it not only becomes possible to remove an original from its site and deterritorialize it, but also to reterritorialize the copy. Benjamin himself calls attention to this possibility when he writes about the figure of profane illumination and refers to the forms of life that can lead to such a profane illumination: "The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flaneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic" (9). One is struck by the fact that these figures of profane illumination are also figures of motion - especially the flaneur. The flaneur does not demand of things that they come to him; he goes to things. In this sense, the flaneur does not destroy the aura of things; he respects them. Or rather, only through him do they come into being again. The figure of profane illumination is the reversal of the "loss of aura" that comes from siting the copy in a topology of distance. Now, however, it is clear that the installation can also be counted among the figures of profane illumination, because it transforms the viewer into a flaneur.
Art documentation, which by definition consists of images and texts that are reproducible, acquires through the installation an aura of the original, the living, the historical. In the installation the documentation gains a site - the here and now of a historical siting. Because the distinction between original and copy is entirely a topological and situational one, all of the documents placed in the installation become originals - and thus they can rightly be considered original documents of a life that they seek to document. If reproduction makes copies out of originals, installation makes originals out of copies. Our modern way of approaching art can by no means be reduced to a "loss of aura." Rather, modernity enacts a complex play of removing from sites and placing in (new) sites, of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of removing aura and restoring aura. What distinguishes the modern age from earlier periods in this is simply the fact that the originality of a modern work is not determined by its material nature but by its aura, by its context, by its historical site. Consequently, as Benjamin emphasizes, originality does not represent an eternal value. In the modern age, originality has become variable - it has not simply been lost. Otherwise, the eternal value of originality would simply have been replaced by the eternal (non)value of unoriginality - as indeed happens in some art theories. All the same, eternal copies can no more exist than eternal originals. To be an original and possess an aura means the same thing as to be alive. But life is not something that the living being has "in itself": it is the inscription of this living being into a life context-into a lifespan and into a living space.
This also reveals the deeper reason why art documentation now serves as a field of biopolitics - and reveals the deeper dimension of modern biopolitics in general. On the one hand, the modern age is constantly substituting the artificial, the technically produced, and the simulated for the real, or (what amounts to the same thing) the reproducible for the unrepeatable. It is no coincidence that cloning has become today's emblem of biopolitics, for it is precisely in cloning - no matter whether it ever becomes reality or remains a fantasy for ever - that we perceive life as being removed from its site, which is the real threat of technology. In reaction to this threat, we find again and again that conservative, defensive strategies are offered which try to prevent this removal of life from its site by means of regulations and bans, even though the futility of such efforts is obvious even to those struggling for them. What is overlooked in this is that the modern age clearly has, on the other hand, strategies for making something living and original from something artificial and reproduced. The practices of art documentation and of installation in particular reveal another path for biopolitics: rather than fighting off modernity, they develop strategies of resiting and inscription based on situation and context, which make it possible to transform the artificial into something living and the repetitive into something unrepeatable.
(1) On this, see Boris Groys, "Unter Verdacht: Eine Phänomenologie der Medien”, Munich: Carl Hauser Verlag, 2000, p54ff
(2) Giorgio Agamben, “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life,” Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, pp 166-76; originally published as “Homo Sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita,” Turin: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1995
(3) See also Jean-François Lyotard, “The Differend: Phrases in Dispute,” trans Georges van den Abbeele, Manchester: Manchester University Press and Minnesota, MN: Minnesota University Press, 1988; originally published as “Le Différend,” Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983.
(4) See “Kollektivnye Deystviya: Pojezdki za gorod, 1977-1998,” Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1998. See also Hubert Klocker, “Gesture and the Object. Liberation as Aktion: A European Component of Performaive Art,” in “Out of Actions; Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 (exhibition catalogue), Loss Angeles, CA: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Vienna: Österreichisches Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and Tokyo: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998-99, pp 166-67.
(5) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in “Illuminations” trans Horry Zohn, London: Fontana 1992, pp 214-15.
(6) Ibid, p 214
(8) Ibid, p 217
(9) Walter Benjamin, “Reflections, Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings,” ed Peter Demetz, trans Edmund Jephcott, New York: Schocken Books, 1986, p 190.