An Evolving Thesis



“I am adding my finger to your sentence.
You can feel it as you type now,
on your hand, can’t you?”

–The Queen of Touch, on-line urgent message, AOL (Dec. 15,11:37pm)

The work of art in the age of digital reproduction is physically and formally chameleon. There is no distinction now between “original” and “reproduction” in virtually any medium based in film, electronics, or telecommunications. As for the fine, printed and hand-applied arts, including calligraphy, the distinction is eroding, if not finally collapsed. The fictions of “master” and “copy” are now so entwined with each other that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends, resembling lovers folded together in ecstasy. In one sense, the proclamation of doom descending on the aura of “originality” authored by Walter Benjamin early in this century is confirmed by these events, which are beyond question.(1) In another sense, proclaimed now, in this text, the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin’s prophecy, into the rich realm of reproduction itself. Here, in this realm, often mislabeled ‘virtual’ (it is a realer reality, or RR ) both Originality and Traditional Truth, symbolized by the unadorned photographic “fact,” are being enhanced, not betrayed.

How? You know how. A word about the difference between “analogue” signals and what might be called digital messages. The difference became functional when conventional electronics and the first generation of computers began to evolve into the present state, where electronic bits can be sent over telephone lines, for example, not only by microwave relay or satellites, or through a scanner hooked into a video camera, ending on a video-still board installed in a late-issue Macintosh. Analogue signals may be compared to a wave breaking on a beach, breaking over and over but never precisely in the same form. That is why “copying” an audio signal or video signal in the past always involved a loss in clarity. But digital bits, compatible at last to the new generation of tools that see, hear, speak, and compute, march in precise, soldierly fashion, one figure after another. This means that any video, audio, or photographic work of art can be endlessly reproduced, without degredation, always the same, always perfect. The same is true for handmade images or words that can be “scanned,” that is, converted to digital bits.

But more to the point. Each of these bits can be endlessly varied as well, since it is simply a matter of directing one soldier to move a foot, rather than calling up an entire wave. My photographic self-portrait can be turned up-side down, my ear can be chopped off, the background can be changed from black to gold–and this manipulation, like Ted Turner’s colorized black-and-white film classics, will reproduce in this manner forever, millions and millions of times. My “virtual” self, that is, a three-dimensional working model of the author, can be transmitted even now from New York to Lodz, Poland, or to Moscow, if I cannot attend the opening of my exhibition in either city in 1995.

But the work of art is not only changing its form and means of delivery. By far its most provocative extension is into the intimate bowels of our body, mind, and spirit. Beside this all changes, even Internetting, even our recent evolution into the World Wide Web, pale. No single element of the messaging now going on disturbs the guardians of traditional modernity more than this single fact. A few years ago, Frederick Jameson, the senior and singular Marxist art theorist of our day, finally accepted video art as the real heart of contemporary art. But he complained, rightly, about its inability to foster communication of any kind.

Yet now we see communicative networks ribbing the globe. You and I, online, are strapped down–maybe–like Prometheus by a web of incisive personal signals. Or…are we being raised by these messages, like Lazarus from the dead past? Now you know perfectly well that Jameson and his colleagues will shortly proclaim this new and highly intensive messaging as improper material for High Art. This is precisely what they told me and my friends in the 60’s, about video. Jameson & Co. won’t be moved by “The Queen of Touch” (whose real name I don’t know and don’t need). She signaled me three nights ago as I began to think about this piece, and Wired. . Art, in the traditional realm, is a commodity that must pretend to universality, they tell us, from kindergarten on. It must reach out to touch many fingers, not just yours or mine. Michelangelo didn’t make the Sistine Chapel in 1512, but in the year 0.

Allow me to propose a vulgar analogy. The guardians of traditional modernism (not traditional classicism) have deprived art of its climax, exactly as the theory of coitus interruptus, foistered on poor Christian lovers in the middle ages, deprived intercourse. When we insist that High Art can only speak to Everyman (or to the Ages), we rob it of vulgar, sweating specificity. Art can’t happen now, between you and me, only tomorrow, or the day after, to everyone. It’s worse when we insist–as Walter Benjamin insisted–on the sacred “aura” of the original. You must stand in front of the Mona Lisa or else. You can’t fall in love with her reproduction, no, no, no–that’s masturbation. You have to fly to the Louvre in Paris and stand, forever, in line.

But now, now the artist can copy this precious uniqueness–the “real” Mona–into infinity! No more need to masturbate, except in a rush, or in the classroom. Needless to say, each of these provocative modes of address and interaction are charged with powerful social and psychological implications. In the end, they will touch each of us, as artists, photographers, filmmakers, video makers, writers, readers, viewers. In a valuable early essay based upon research and interviewing humanists and social scientists at Stanford in 1984, Peter Lyman concluded that the cybernetic premise upon which computer programs were based led inevitably to the centralization of control:

“A computer is both an object, a machine, and a series of “congealed” social relations which have been embedded within the object: it is a tool which makes the work of writing more efficient; its software contains a cybernetic model of knowledge derived from technical culture which does not address the ethical and social issues which have been part of the project of qualitative social research; it is embedded within an everyday male culture of aggressive images of control which constitute a cultural barrier for some users.”(2)

As is the case with Benjamin, however, it seems clear as the century unwinds that the predictions of technocratic control overlooked not only the capacity of an educated elite–indoctrinated by an anarchic fine and popular culture in behalf of individuality and irrationality–to defy control. They overlooked the sheer profit awaiting those inventors and companies able to create computer programs, among them Hypercard and the Quicktime “movie,” that empower imagination rather than reason. Finally, the very ease of social interaction that distressed Lyman and his colleagues as they witnessed the instant access enjoyed by Stanford researchers into one another’s data and field notes can be seen as a decentralizing condition. Almost ten years later, libraries increasingly offer not stolid, imperious texts, but fields of knowledge on a terminal with which the user can interact, revising and extending the central text. Potentially, the “reader” is now, as Lyman says, the “author.”

The hand-made arts of writing, drawing, and painting, normally presumed beyond digitalization, are also affected, in different ways. Now small personal computers able to respond to handwriting on a screen are beginning to appear, at once reclaiming the hand and subjecting it to infinite replication. The moment a painting can be scanned, the “original” landscape, portrait, or color field can be altered, or cloned, in the manner of a vintage film. Already Ethan Allan, the furniture chain, markets paintings reproduced on canvas by laser-transfer technology through a printer, acting on dutifully scanned bits. Once again, the tiniest turn of the mouse on the software in the Macintosh can indelibly transform–that is, change–the masterpiece’s coded imagery forever.

Only the unwary mind would deny the further inevitability that a “neurasthenic” computer, programmed by humanoid codes (a “fuzzy logic” program, for example, already used by the Japanese to run washing machines and park cars) will shortly create paintings, from first stroke to last. “Virtual Art” is as certain a fixture of the Digital Age as “Virtual Reality,” in which micro-processed programs insert the user in a totally Africa universe through the medium of stereoscopic glasses and sensate digital gloves. Thus clad, we can be led to walk, think, and feel the man-made world in virtually the same way we experience the “real” world.

Yet more is at issue here than simply reproducing or mimicking the art of the hand. The mind is at issue, too, most of all in the premises and perceptions it will now inexorably bring to both art and life, to that sacred line between “original” and “fake.” Often the forger–of Rembrandt, of Vermeer, of classical Greek and Roman art–argues that his work brings pleasure in the same measure as the copied master. A stylish gallery in New York called “True Fakes, Ltd.,” openly indulges this thesis on its populist level. On another level, all post-Dada vanguard art has seemed to defy the sanctity of the original. A truly provocative artist like Elaine Sturtevant, whose Warhols and Rauschenbergs often improve on the “original,” represents the other end of this pole, as does all theory which emphasizes mind rather than matter.

The very act of “de-construction” implies that the breaking apart and rearranging of the primal elements of art, or of the sentence, has its own singular, even equal value. Derrida’s refiguring of the text is simply one obvious example. Another, the dominant mode in architecture of the past decade, is the collaging together of disparate orders taken from discordant centuries, as in the failed eclecticism of Michael Graves’ revised and enlarged Whitney Museum. A third example is the digital rearrangement of photographic reality using a simple software program like Adobe Photoshop, common coin for virtually every art student under 25 now. As William Mitchell points out in his new book, The Reconfigured Eye: Digital Images and Photographic Truth, the early years of this decade marked the moment when the apparently truthful silver-based photographic emulsion gave way to the apparently deceptive computer-processed image (deceptive because we know, or intuit that the photographic record is artificially constructed).(3) Larry Friedman’s “Shakespeare Project” at Stanford, which revises filmed or taped scenes, moving sounds and lines (as digital soldiers) from one pair of lips to another is a similar consequence, as is the compact disc recently issued of Handel’s Messiah, providing nine “original” versions of the work, each track instantly available to the ear, while a second track is playing.

By finding the means to transfer my early video works from analog to digital I can contemplate revisions on my computer that will allow me to change my mind, two decades later, about points where I erred long ago. This allows me to produce a “post-original original.” Many of my Russian colleagues would lust for an opportunity to re-design, in effect, certain classic works made by the heroic Soviet avant-garde of the 20’s, paring down its optimism, that is, its ideological certainty. Digital Video, the equivalent of Digital Audio, the “D.A.T.,” renders the line between live and taped imagery simultaneously false, and true. With a Sony 8mm handi-cam (the TR-81, for example, now available on the street for less than $500) it is impossible to see the difference between the live close-up of a face and a taped close-up, even after it has been transferred several times between camera and VCR. Here in New York, at the Astor Place Theater, the Blue Man Group, an ensemble that has rendered performance art into highly accessible theater, plays constantly on the ambiguity of “live” and “taped” through the medium of a portable camera and a large, mural-sized screen poised on the lip of the stage. When the Group “disappears” off-stage, the audience is never sure whether its antics behind the curtain, labeled “live” on the screen, are live or dead (that is, pre-taped).

In “Quicktime” computer networking and the phenomenon of “compressed” video, we see yet a further squeezing of now and then, here and there, what is “real” or original, what is manipulated, or artificial. Here the act of transforming and digitizing live long-distance video signals sent from Moscow to Los Angeles, for example, allows us the luxury (or deceit) of distorting, toning, and stretching verbal and visual messages when they are filed and stored on the computer terminal. The work of an primal filmmaker like Vertov can be received, de-constructed or rearranged, then archived; later, if we wish, the original signal can be re-presented in the pure black-and-white sequential state first intended. The compression of the video signal allows at this moment an even purer and cleaner signal to be sent over a “dedicated” phone line, from Russia to the United States, or in reverse. This digitized signal can both be stored or directly seen on large, high-definition video screens by entire classrooms or auditoria, providing visual access far beyond the scale of the computer terminal itself. William Mitchell’s description of the implications of digital photography apply to all media transformed into this state:

The distinction between the causal processes of the camera and the intentional process of the artist can no longer be drawn so confidently and categorically…The traditional origin narrative by which automatically captured…images are made to seem casual things of nature…recited…by Bazin, Barthes and Berger, Sontag and Scruton–no longer has the power to convince us. The referent has come unstuck.(4)

But I am not predicting that the culture will entirely embrace the meaning of the digital world. The great mistake of theoreticians in the past, as we have seen, was to ignore resistance, contradiction, and primal human cussedness. Walter Benjamin saw accurately the logical implications of mechanical reproduction. He erred only in assuming that the world would bow to this logic, that the endless reproduction of a painting, for example, or a photograph, would diminish what he called the “aura” of the original. As Sidney Tillim once pointed out in Artforum, nothing like this happened. .(5) We bid now wildly in auctions and employ armies of scholars to find the “original,” the “authentic” masterpiece. In the face of Rosalind Kraus’ deftly argued brief against the cult of originality and novelty, the cult thrives. Each fall, legions of artists, critics, and collectors flood hungrily into galleries and museums in pursuit of the new, or at least the illusion that something different is about to happen. As these legions increase, spawned by universal education, as they turn to the computer terminal, where networked information allows contact, as we have seen, to exhibitions and voices thousands of miles away, the search turns universal, eroding all lines between East, West, North, South.

Twenty-five years ago, in a quite extraordinary essay, A. Michael Noll, an engineer then conducting theoretical research for Bell Telephone Laboratories, sensed the contradictory implications of the digital computer: its very dexterity, he predicted, would free many of us to indulge spiraling, multi-faceted, even chaotic patterns, not simple order, or reproduction. (6) Now there is clear evidence of this reversal, following hard upon the world’s refutation of Benjamin. Perhaps every dominant mode, or style, is rejected in the end. Even now, in an age when copying is high art, when the simple physical availability of vintage masterpieces is dwindling, when post-modern theories of assemblage and collage inform a sensibility that seems our resident state of being, the concept of “aura” (if not its traditional material realization) persists. Surely, now, it must be further transformed, to survive the logical assault brought on by the digital age. Transformed into what? Into a dematerialized idea? symbol? presence? Of course these questions are impossible to answer, definitively, at a moment when the events sure to be generated through the new context are only beginning to occur.

They are nonetheless pressing enough to warrant the hazard of a guess, informed at once by the elite culture, by vulgar analogies in the popular culture, and by the demographics of the century now coming to a close. Certainly it seems that if the clutch of tendencies variously described as “post-structuralism,” “post-modernism,” “post-avant-garde,” “appropriation,” and a wide variety of post-painterly tendencies prefixed by “Neo” have any single, unifying thread it is the discordant power of unique interpretation, or re-interpretation. When I de-construct meaning, I re-create it, within a subjective context that is inevitably unique, no matter how ordered, or predestined. The other night at the Astor Place Theater in New York, chancing upon the Blue Man Group’s Tubes for the third time, I found myself saluted by name on the electronic message screen flashing in the middle of the proscenium stage shortly after I sat down. Later I learned that I had been detected by a computer program through the use of my credit card. Not far from me, a woman friend was asked to rise while the audience applauded her birthday, detected by similar means.

Granted, this is individuation employed either as whimsy or as banality, depending upon your point of view. But in neither case is it possible to detect any subservience to technology’s supposedly fatal inhumanity. Not long after, I participated in a “Virtual Reality” panel at the Jack Tilton Gallery. At no point did I detect from any of the artists present or–more significantly–from the audience a single gram of insensitivity to the phenomenological danger posed by immersion in a created world. My wish, their wish, everyone’s wish lay in the direction of finding ways to increase the power of our subjective presence in the “other reality,” precisely as the painter orders his field. In the accompanying catalogue, Jenny Holzer speaks directly for this contrarian impulse: “I haven’t quite figured out how my worlds will look….One thing I do want to explore is what happens when you fly through a floor.” (7) One day later, while discussing the means by which I might illustrate the catalogue of my exhibition, Redness (8), we all came to the conclusion that I could at once defy the cost and techniques of production by hand-pasting each photograph into each copy. We calculated that I could hand-glue 5,000 pages in less than half a day. At the same time, the entire book will be set on computers, no hand touching the page.

It is not so much the “signifiers” in each of these cases that matters as it is the signified, or the punch line to the joke, which is widely shared. The educated elite is now immense, and widespread. Without hesitation, artist, audience , and publisher in each of the incidents described embraced the individuating mark, not the erasure of presence that accompanies replication. it seems to me a further reversal of fortune to find digital technology so accomplished in providing that individuating mark. Quicktime software allows exquisite variations in video copying: each issue, like a newborn child, can subtly order pace, pitch, even the shades of black and white. It is not only the reader-user envisioned by Peter Lyman who can alter “books” printed out on library computers. So can the proprietors of hand-held Newtons and Sharp Wizards, soon able to call up entire videos and films, as well as books, edit them, and pass them on. What begins to emerge in these modes is a fine-grained sensitivity to the unique qualities of every copy, including the digitally-processed photograph, where the operative question will soon be, as Mitchell prophesies, “What’s wrong / that is, deceptive / with this picture?” Two years ago in Russia I found an old book in which the one-time owner had glued six “copies” of a photograph of a woman. Not one copy resembles the other, save in its sharing of a single, forgotten source. His work inspired me to continue copying, in a myriad ways, images of Russian women who had moved me. In the past few years, Lucio Pozzi has been re-performing his original performances in New York, with the aid of the Dia Foundation, among other sources, never conceding the slightest indication to the audience that they are “old,” or revised versions of an allegedly superior original. Each time he performs, the work is immanent, for those in position to see it. The Roman numerals beside so many of our popular films (Back to the Future II) are vulgar signifiers of what I am trying to say: it is the repetitive “copy” that is dead, not the original. The one and the other are not separate, but together.

For these and various other reasons, the supposedly indomitable powers of mindless collectivization and reproduction, threatened through-out this century, do not seem at its end to be in ascendant. Rather we respond to the reverse, which poses its own dilemmas. We reach through the electronic field of ease that cushions us, like amniotic fluid, through the field that allows us to order, reform, and transmit almost any sound, idea, or word, toward what lies beyond, toward the transient and ineffable, a breath, for one example, a pause in conversation (for another), even, finally, the twisted grain in a xeroxed photograph, or videocassette. Here is where the aura resides. In the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise. Not in the thing itself.

January 1, 1995

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), pp. 217-251.
2. Peter Lyman. “Reading, Writing and ‘Word Processing: Toward a Phenomenology of the Computer Age,” Qualitative Sociology (Spring-Summer, 1984), pp. 75-89.
3. Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1992, p. 18. Cf. also Mitchell, “When Is Seeing Believing?” Scientific American (February, 1994), pp. 68-73.
4. Mitchel, The Reconfigured Eye, p. 30.
5. Sidney Tillim, ” Benjamin Rediscovered: The Work of Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Artforum (21, no. 5, May, 1983), pp. 65-73.
6. A. Michael Noll, “The Digital Computer as a Creative Medium,” IEEE Spectrum (IV, no. 10, October, 1967), pp. 89-95.
7. Jenny Holzer, “Activity Can Be Overrated.” Through the Looking Glass: Artists’ First Encounters with Virtual Reality, eds. Janine Cirincione and Brian D’Amato. New York, Softworlds, Jupiter, Florida, 1992., pp. 25-29.
8. Opened at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, June, 1992, Redness traveled to the Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, September, 1992; the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, Conn., September, 1993; to the Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, May, 1995; then to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow in the fall of 1995, with further travel possible thereafter. A
catalogue published in Polish, English, and Russian by the Museum Sztuki includes essays by Jaromir Jedlinski, Urszula Czartoryska, Joseph Bakshtein, Helen Fisher, and Martha Wilson, with a statement by the artist. Parts of this catalogue together with images from the exhibition will later be made available both on the Web and the Net.

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–Douglas Davis