Memories and Poor Copies
It has been months since I was with you. Quarantine passed alone and the world still feels like it is ending. I am terrified that the one replacing it may not be any better. It’s difficult to remember that even revolutions are closed circles. My brain hasn’t stopped spinning. Trying to quiet it, I dug through piles of forgotten things and came across an old copy of a paper I wrote, badly titled “Poor Copies: Benjamin, Digital Replay, and Existential Determination for Animate Art.” I shared it with you once, if you remember. It is now encrusted with dog hair and dust.
It began on the subway as I sat - maskless and younger - with a second-hand copy of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. Half asleep, I cradled the book’s cracked spine and thumbed through pages that had been marked by someone else’s hands. My mind wandered away from the prose, eyes stringing words skimmed into nonsensical sentences.
“In principle - man-made artifacts - always - intimidated - men. - practice - diffusing their - gain. - Historically - intermittently and in leaps - long intervals. - Greeks knew only two - founding and stamping. - woodcut - literature - a familiar story. However, within the phenomenon - the perspective of world history - is merely a special - lithography - lithography - lithography - block - its copperplate -permitted - Lithography - freed the hand - devolved - the eye looking into a lens. - speed - speech - foreshadow - sound - the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than - works of art - the - of - have - art in - form.”
I read the same paragraphs over and over but it’s not Benjamin’s fault - it’s the city buzz and I was overstimulated.
Then I came to it - “This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence”, wrote Benjamin on page 220 of my copy. Something excited me about this gentle assertion. Its challenge to live art as a valuable means of historiography in an age of digital hegemony. It is vital for this precarious moment in history that cannot bear any more. Perhaps it is the key to how one might make sense of past events in such a way that doesn’t compel the propagation of humiliation, cannibalism, and the predigested obsolescence of the virtual world, as the current mode of history-making continues to do.
In Benjamin’s essay, an artwork’s “uniqueness”, its “presence in time and space”, is what determines its authenticity. He asserts that its replications are not to be considered art and certainly not any mechanical reproductions of it. They all fall under the sway of the ur-. The thousands of copies of the Mona Lisa painted throughout the centuries all belong to the original painting. And while his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” considers mostly the plastic arts (in the Apollonian sense), it should still be applied to digital reproduction. And certainly, every photograph and pixelated rendering belong to the original painting. This authenticity is therefore desperately tied to physical space in this virtual age. To Google “Mona Lisa” and gaze upon her countenance through one’s computer screen does not access any of the mystical quality inherent in the original. Standing close to it at the Louvre (tiny as it is) allows for it to gently show you its texture, its strokes of paint, and it’s three-dimensionality. Being present with the artwork is integral to its existence.
Benjamin goes so far as to suggest that frequent reproduction dissipates or even eliminates the original’s power by diluting its uniqueness. This strips it of the mythical power he refers to as its “aura”. So, does mass duplication via the internet destroy art? Certainly not. Yet Benjamin argues via Paul Valéry that the change in time and medium alters the public’s ability to perceive - this art is always in flux with the people. However, it does recall the well-worn question of whether or not I would find the same power in the Mona Lisa or a Picasso if I did not already know they had cultural value - which is made possible through the mass digital dissemination of these images.
Mass replication on the internet does ensure the constriction of the spectator’s experience to only a few select aspects of the artwork, much like any other camera/screen controls gaze. The focus is limited to the macro - or rather just one thing - on the culmination rather than the process marks. In the case of painting, it privileges a view for what the image depicts but rarely allows for an encounter with the brush strokes or any aspect of how it was made. It tidies away the labour. The craft of it, however, is essential to its existence as art.
This all amounts to a temporal structure from Benjamin that might seem counterintuitive to what Stephen Hawking refers to as the psychological arrow of time, which relates to our experience of its passing and why one cannot remember the future, only the past. And Kierkegaard’s Constantin Constantius famously discovers that even in the theater the only repetition in one’s lived experience is the impossibility of recurrence.
So why should I have been so excited by these ideas and what they mean for the disarming of a capitalist white masculine space which maintains its pale grip on the past for survival? The space for disruption rests not in more static works of visual art but in live performance. One might assume that performance art is the exception to what can be mechanically reproduced, although there are plenty who have looked at the performed gesture as something repeated and passed down - something with an active legacy/history to it. The ridges and ravines caused by the brush stroke are not all that different from the ripple and pull of the muscle in the performing body. And while one may not have the same time to experience the body in action as one does with a still work of art, one has multiple engaged senses to provide the same depth of experience in an instant. The smell and sound. Jerzy Grotowski once described this exchange between performing body and spectator as a profound communion. And there is still distance to both, in a way that there cannot be for the mechanically or digitally produced artwork. It becomes an essential counterbalance if one is to begin thinking of how live art can be a useful method for reshaping the way we can remember past events. Yet all this is just a pedant’s exercises with Benjamin’s text, grappling with his idea of temporal causality and authenticity, unless I demonstrate what I mean. What the hell good is theory without a little application, even if the idea devours itself in the process?
To that end, I invite you to a gallery space with the promise of a demonstration by way of a performance exhibition and you come because you must. You arrive in the makeshift lobby space in the foyer where a jazzy instrumental rendition of Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is softly playing. This could be one of those Symbolist events, you think, and a little ham-fisted at that, but just maybe you will find it endearing. The floor is expectedly bare and you wonder if this gallery could also be my apartment in Queens.
Entering the main room, your senses are assaulted by color and motion. Throughout there hangs a tangle of coarse threads strung through sheets of paper marking out historical and narrative lines. Before your eyes can make sense of this web or the sea of blues on the wall you encounter me - my performing body - in the center of the room. Neither of us are wearing masks and yet you feel safe. My breathing is steady. I am working, gathering up from the floor what might be dirt or dust, maybe ash. I am pressing it hard in my fists until it becomes paste-like. I mix it with oil into paint. Its consistency is variable, at parts soft and flaky and others like a brittle slime. These actions are slow and deliberate. My breathing remains metered.
Your eyes wander and notice that the walls are nearly covered with layers of copies of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. Your eyes rove along the boney hand, up the sleek guitar, and around his forehead to the eyes. Why did I use this celebrity pentimento instead of something grand like an 18th Century portrait, as might have been my inclination? My mother would have preferred an Impressionist. Along one wall hangs digital prints of the painting printed from the internet - each more pixelated than the previous, all displayed the same way with the identical frame. Slumping among them is an oil painting that appears to be the actual painting itself. You suspend your disbelief and I won’t get the chance later to gloat about how I did secure Picasso’s original for this project by simply walking into the Art Institute of Chicago and asking to borrow it. Being a young, white, male artist in the United States comes with certain privileges.
In the corner you notice a door left ajar - not part of the exhibit. The closet is full of found objects cut from the exhibition at the last minute. The exhibit was streamlined for popular digital sleekness (although the internet is anything but - it is glutted with more garbage ads and refuse than any city I’ve ever passed through). There is a cheap thrill in peeking at what you’re not supposed to.
Then you spend time with a glowing monitor. On the screen is an image of the Picasso pulling back and as it pulls you see it surrounded by identical images and the view pulls back revealing a potentially infinite number of images that start to form a mosaic in the image of the original which continues pulling back to be surrounded by infinite mosaic composites that seem to form an even larger mosaic of the original image and on and on. You watch until the motion makes you nauseous and then you turn your eyes away.
On the opposite wall hangs a video screen playing footage of a large machine. It is like a 3D printer but instead of pulling from a string of plastic filament it slowly drags paint brushes over canvas. The original Old Guitarist hangs against the wall in the video accompanying the performance just as it does now. The machine is reproducing it on the worktable. At the four corners of the table, ungainly computer printers (probably collecting dust since the early aughts) are spitting out continuous copies of the image into tidy piles. There are spectators in the footage and it seems to be taking place in the same room as this and you wonder just how many performance attempts have happened here.
You return to me. I am painting with the paste and my work is starting to take shape as another reproduction of The Old Guitarist. Is the performing painting something new? The work looks like an attempt to replicate the original. But, as it is a very poor copy, is it now new? You discover later that the muck used to make the paint was actually ash. Copies of the paintings made in one of the videos were later burned up for this purpose. The colours are limited to the blacks, greys, and pale browns of the ash.
The idea suddenly strikes you that you are not able to enjoy the same freedom here as you would if you were attending the performance live. And maybe that’s why I did this. I can control where you look and how. (I retreat into words by typing this text because it’s where my power can sustain itself.) Here on the page is where I have historically enjoyed the greatest power. But too much water causes rot so I pull your focus back to my body in action. You see me position myself so that these different stations are behind me for different portions of the performance. It occurs to you that perhaps they are framing me, that their proximity is calling for their direct interaction with my body and its labor. As I move about the space on my track, certain backgrounds recur with frequency. And now your mind restlessly drifts.
A buzz from your phone calls you back. You instinctively pull it out, but you stop - nervous that I heard the vibration. Can you feel me staring through to you, straining to look deep into your eyes? Can you smell that sharp, alliaceous body odor tinged with stale coffee radiating from me? I stare at you from between the lines - peeking over letters. My eyes are pixels, all light and now out into your eyes - penetrating as the seconds flash by again and again ad infinitum.
Stop! That’s enough. This isn’t even a memory. It only happened on the page. Now here on this screen. Right in front of you. But I still can’t feel you and I don’t know that I ever will.
Patrick Scorese - I identify as a writer, historiographer, and performance-based artist living/working in Jackson Heights, NY. My practice is driven by a keen interest in continually reevaluating and forming new amalgamations of installation, object-making, and text as performance; rejoicing in the liminal to test the boundaries of History. I consider art-making to be a means of learning. Within this blend of expression, my projects claw open the present moment to reveal the past that makes it. My aim is to disarm dangerous hegemonies presumed to be natural and open up the future to radically liberatory possibilities. I am currently co-editing the multi-authored academic monograph, Pandemic Performance: Resilience, Liveness, and Protest in Quarantine Times (Routledge), about the intersection of art and activism during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Rag and Bone Aesthetics, a multimedia collaboration with visual artists Ify Chiejina, Hannah Cook, Rejin Leys, and Daphne Silbiger will be published this winter (Small Editions). Writings have also appeared in MARCH: A Journal of Art and Strategy, the International Journal of Performance Art and Digital Media, the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Ex Nunc, Culturebot, Crack the Spine, Angel Rust, and others.
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