In Inventing the Medium, Janet Murray draws attention to the problem of perceiving recent technologies as “new media,” as if the most observable quality of these forms of mediation were their novelty (8). And, indeed, the vast majority of research on computational technologies emphasizes their difference and distance from previous, usually analog, forms of mediation. However, much of the success of new technologies derives from the remediation of prior media conventions, genres, and affordances, and the socially and ideologically constructed positions always already in place before the introduction of newer media technologies. From this perspective, “new” media are in fact quite old and just as dependent upon specific social and institutional functions as all previous media. The “newness” of digital media derives from its existence on a computational substrate capable of simulating previous mediums (it’s a metamedium) through symbolic representation in binary code. This, in turn, enables a wide variety of Human-Computer Interactions (HCIs) through which previously fixed design features can be manipulated and individually curated. Through an analysis of the e-reader, this paper argues that digital remediations of the book rely on many of the same socio-cultural institutions as previous material incarnations of the author and book functions, and that these institutions continue to depend on the social and ideological functions of authorship and textuality, even and especially in the digital age. The introduction of e-books does not alter the bi-directional mediation between socio-cultural institutions and the book, but instead offers new means of interaction between reader and text. Nevertheless, in contrast to many speculations on the ability of the computer to absorb all mediums into a single metamedium, thus rendering analog media obsolete, print literature exists and will continue to exist alongside computational simulations in an analog-digital continuum due to the socially ascribed symbolic value to printed books and the unique affordances of the medium that resist digital remediation.
In searching the Google Art Project, I encountered in the work of Anselm Kiefer the starkest contrast between an original, analog composition and its digital reproduction. In several ways, Kiefer’s compositions exaggerate certain elements innate to all analog visual art, particularly the importance of scale and the inexorable deterioration of the artwork. Through an analysis of Google Art’s digital reproduction of Kiefer’s Humbaba (2009), this post intends to examine how the massive scale and use of already decaying matter in Kiefer’s work illustrates Benjamin and Malraux’s critiques of photographic reproductions. In addition, such techniques might function as a means of preemptively resisting remediation into the digital.
Scale: As Malraux notes in The Voices of Silence, “There is another, more insidious, effect of reproduction. In an album or art book the illustrations tend to be of much the same size. Thus works of art lose their relative proportions” (Irvine 4). This is particularly evident in Google Art’s reproduction of Humbala, in which not only is the composition approximately reduced to the same size as all other reproductions in the database, but even the description itself fails to provide the proportions of the artwork.
As a result, the viewer must rely on previous experiences of Kiefer’s other compositions, or general cultural knowledge of Kiefer’s work, in order to imagine the probably grandness of its scale. While the shirt in the composition provides some means of assessing proportion, the size of this shirt is left indeterminate by both the image and the description (is it a man’s shirt? A doll’s? etc.).
Decay: In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin examines the inability of the reproduction to reproduce the context of an artwork (“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place” (253)), while also mentioning (somewhat briefly) the importance of the materiality of the artwork in assessing its authenticity: “This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership” (253). It’s this latter materiality that I would like to focus on with regard to Kiefer. Certainly, all analog visual art is subject to decay, but here we have compositions which readily exhibit their own decomposition through the intentional combination of elements already in the process of decay (dead leaves, rotting twigs, tattered cloth, etc.). In addition to providing sensory perceptions that resist digitalization (e.g. odors and textures), the accelerated dilapidation of a Kiefer composition ensures that the composition itself undergoes significant physical changes faster than most other forms of visual art. It is not merely that the meaning of the artwork changes based on situational or historical context—where it is in space (art museum, studio, gallery, internet database) and in time (intertextuality stipulates that the introduction of new artwork into the network alters the meaning of the old)—but also that the artwork itself observably changes at a rapid rate in comparison to, say, tradition oil-on-canvas paintings. This unique quality of Kiefer’s work is not digitalized, for the digital image never organically decomposes (although it would not be impossible to simulate this, I’d imagine, Google has yet to do it).
Certainly, we do not have to take the digital reproduction as a replacement for the original. In this sense, the digital reproduction serves to provide access to a global audience; it extends viewership to anyone with an internet connection. However, in the case of Kiefer’s work, is there any point in this extension of access? Two of the main characteristics of his composition—massiveness and decay—resist any attempts at digitalization (as my friend remarked in a conversation about this, “It’s only as massive and decaying as your screen”). What, then, is left? Is it even the same artwork in the digital context? Would a more thorough metatextual description alleviate these deficiencies? (Does not visual art also resist translation into the written word?) Adding to Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, might Kiefer’s work provide a case study as to how older mediums might compete with newer mediums not only through remediating the new, but perhaps through employing elements that actively resist remediation into newer formats?
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939).
Irvine, Martin. “André Malraux, “La Musée Imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum)””.
O’Doherty mentioned in Inside the White Cube that, “The history of modern art can be correlated with changes in that space and in the way we see it. We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first. An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of 20th-century art. And it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains.” Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of 1951, which hung in cross-formations from the celling as part of the environment can be seen as part of visual/performance art. It indicates Zen aesthetics, but more importantly, it questioned whether art experience should actually be sought from ‘within’ objects. When visitors approach the museum environment, they would contemplate the meaning of this “emptiness” as “high-art”, which can be painstaking because it challenged people on their understanding of art and museum’s function.
In regards to Malraux’s Imaginary Museum, the decontextualized representations of works of art in photographic reproductions in books enabled a reconceptualization of art by styles and cultures, abstractions that render a history of cultural objects into “art history.” Benjamin describes the remediated work would lose its “aura.” “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” (Benjamin, 1939). Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise comprises a collection of miniatures and samples of his pre-1935 output. Duchamp remediated his works in a portable museum, which is remediated art history book or a salesman’s brief case. Hopkins describes the Boîte-en-Valise exemplifies the transition between two worlds: the old Europe of the museum and the connoisseur, and the young America of the commercial gallery and the artistic commodity. By duplicate his won works, Duchamp challenged the “aura” of original pieces.
Boîte-en-Valise, Marcel Duchamp, 1941
Malraux describes the art book and reproduction cannot capture the real artifacts but the distilled art history, “What is reproduced and mediated in art books? The already-organized holdings of museums, libraries, and archives, and the concept of ‘art history’ itself.” While some artists deliberately questioned the easel painting tradition and created some art works that are very hard to be reproduced. Rauschenberg’s notorious Bed of 1955 moved bed from a horizontal to vertical orientation in the object’s upright placement. Based on a picture, it is really hard to capture the controversial essence of this work and without the physical experience with the texture, Rauschenberg’s inventive notion: “Combines” seems meaningless.
Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955
In 1950’s, the London-based Independent Group openly embraced kitsch and further challenged museum’s function and it’s ability to mirror art works. In IG’s Parallel of Life and Art exhibition, photographs of varying sizes were attached to the gallery walls. Some of them were suspended by wires from the celling. Malraux describes that, “In an album or art book the illustrations tend to be of much the same size. Thus works of art lose their relative proportions; a miniature bulks as large as a full-size picture, a tapestry or a stained glass window. ” IG’s photography exhibition challenged the stereotype on photography; however, when it was introduced as one example in art history books, it still have to be limited by the scale and relatively poor picture quality 60 years ago.
Parallel of Life and Art,1953
Malraux noted that photographic reproductions in a book can only provide an abstract notion of a style. The dis-located or de-located “museum” enables an abstract encyclopedia of comparisons across history and material contexts, but one that thematizes “styles” or features thought to be held in common(Irvine, 2015). In Google Art Project, the Imaginary Museum 2.0., which attempted to tackle an imaginary museum with most recent technology, provided more space sense by adding 360-degree indoor map function. Google art project’s indoor map function add 3D user experience, which provided more possibilities for Modern Artists and Pop Artists to express their esthetic values in some extend.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube (Chap. 1)
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility“ (1936; rev. 1939).