ESSAYS Mousse 43
True Blue Or the Work of Images in the Age of Digital Reproduction
by Jennifer Allen
Alexi Lubomirski, Blue, 2013. Courtesy: the artist
Jennifer Allen continues to delve into the status of the image: what changes has it gone through over the last few decades, and in recent years? What is the basis of its cultural value today? Whereas works once gained importance the more they were reproduced and seen, today digital reproducibility also implies post-production, critique (like, dislike), comments, retweets… The image’s exposure value grows exponentially: a new alliance arises between statistics and photography. One example is the by-now iconic “Oscars selfie”: retweeting becomes tantamount to touching a relic. Supporting her reasoning with a range of arguments, Allen returns to Walter Benjamin’s definition of “sense of the universal equality of things,” discovering its unexpected pertinence to digital reproducibility.
A couple of months ago, I received a strange photograph attached to an email: a square filled with an intense shade of blue. Upon closer inspection, the photograph showed the outline of a structure, hidden in an intensifying spiral of aquamarine. The image looked like a building that had been photographed from the depths of the ocean. Or perhaps what a diver would glimpse while rising to the water‘s surface, near a dock or a boat.
Several emails later, I found out what I was seeing. But the itinerary of this photograph is significant. The photograph had been taken by Alexi Lubomirski, a top fashion and celebrity photographer, born in England and based in New York. Lubomirski has just published his first monograph Decade (2014), which documents his work from 2003 to 2013. On the road or in the studio, he will often send friends casual snapshots from his working day, including this one, which eventually landed in my inbox.
So what does the photograph show? It was taken at a sitting with a famous person (or famous people). Despite the passage of time, Lubomirski could not give me any more information—except for the story of the “blue sticker” which he captured with this picture. To guarantee the secrecy—and the later surprise—of the portraits, everyone working on the set had to put a blue sticker over the lens of their smart phones. Made of a special material, the sticker will suddenly sport a grid pattern, if removed. At the end of the shoot, everyone must show that their stickers are still intact. Although Lubomirski was the photographer for the sitting, the editors who organized it asked him to sticker his phone lens, too. Lubomirski simply pointed his phone at the light at the window and took a picture through the blue. His photograph shows the little tool that prevents us from seeing what we are not allowed to see. At least not yet.
Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothèque National, 1937
The story of the sticker made me think of Walter Benjamin’s essay on the mechanical reproduction of art, in particular his distinction between cult value and exhibition value. The older cult value uses artworks as magical instruments in ceremonies to serve a particular cult. The more modern exhibition value emancipates works—even the same works—from the cult for secular display. As Benjamin famously wrote about the cult value of art works, “One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view. The elk portrayed by the man of the Stone Age on the walls of his cave was an instrument of magic. He did expose it to his fellow men, but in the main it was meant for the spirits. Today the cult value would seem to demand that the work of art remain hidden. Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain Madonnas remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are invisible to the spectator on ground level.” (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), section V, no translator listed, http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm)
The blue sticker would appear to preserve the cult value of Lubomirski’s photographs: hiding them and thus preventing any exhibition “leaks” which might reduce their cult value in any way before the photographs are eventually seen by a broad public. What initially counts is the existence of the photographs—perhaps relayed by word of mouth in language only—not their being on view, although they were taken to be seen at some point in the future. What counts later on is that as many people see the photographs as possible. That may seem contradictory. Benjamin did not note that exhibition value may end up increasing cult value. The more a work is reproduced, exhibited and seen, the more famous it becomes, the more cult following it earns—the icon being a case in point, from Mona Lisa to Marilyn Monroe. Instead Benjamin linked the rise of exhibition value with the mediums of photography and film. Although photography displaces cult value with exhibition value “all along the line,” he argues that “cult value does not give way without resistance” (…) and “retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance.” In other words: photographic portraiture and the cult of remembering loved ones through their portraits. Or even the loved ones in the cult of celebrity worship. That’s clearly the case for Lubomirski’s portraits of famous models and actors. But in the age of digital reproduction, a portrait of a famous face alone is not enough to secure its cult value, which can be reduced through the next-to-instantaneous and potentially global online distribution.
Indeed, it’s impossible to speak of “digital reproduction” in isolation, as Benjamin once did about mechanical reproduction. The work of art in our age of digital reproduction, to revamp his famous title, is also digital production, post-production, distribution, critical evaluation (Likes, Dislikes) and commentary (retweets and others), archiving, quotation, collaging, even animation (GIFs). Partially for this reason, Getty Images recently removed the watermark from the bulk of its pictures—because it’s always possible to get a screen shot of an image without the watermark, somewhere online. Again, an image’s multiple existences can take place almost instantaneously while reaching a global audience in minutes. In short, the digital work is omnipresent, moving and changing. Unlike a traditional work of art made for the cult, such as a fresco stuck on a church wall and thus fused to one place forever, a digital art work can only move, from one exhibition to the next, one screen to the next, one viewer-user to the next one. And unlike a more modern work of art made for secular exhibition, the digital artwork can and is even expected to be continuously modified. Every viewer is a potential user, reproducer, redistributor and transformer of the work. Through GIFs, photography can become indistinguishable from film, while moving pictures can be changed into photographic stills. Moreover, in the digital realm, cult value and exhibition value can become fused through a technique for visualizing the masses: statistics. Benjamin mentioned statistics in relation to mechanical reproduction and the loss of the aura. “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,” he wrote in section III. “Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics [my emphasis]. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.”
Just how unlimited that scope is can be seen in the “collective” selfie taken at the 2014 Oscars ceremony, since retweeted over two million times—making history as the most retweeted photograph in the world. The cult value of this now-iconic image was born through its unparalleled exhibition value. It seems that Benjamin was wrong about reproduction leading to the loss of the aura—both in mechanical reproduction (from Mona Lisa to Marilyn Monroe) and certainly in digital reproduction (the Oscars selfie). Yet he was uncannily right about another argument in this passage. The Oscars selfie—while showing the new alliance between photography and statistics, between cult value and exhibition value—manifests what Benjamin described as the “sense of the universal equality of things” that comes with digital reproduction. The previous record holder for the most retweeted photograph, at close to 800,000, was President Obama’s “four more years” tweet from November 7, 2012, the night of his re-election, a portrait of the president and the first lady that has since become iconic. While this photograph was about making history in the traditional political sense—the first African-American president of the US wins a second term—the photograph was not taken in the old mode of iconic historical photography because it simply showed the president hugging the first lady instead of a scene from the re-election night when it was posted online. In fact, the “four more years” portrait was taken months earlier, in August 2012, on the campaign trail, and posted by Laura Olin who ran Obama’s Twitter account during the campaign. To understand the old mode of iconic historical photography and its physical-temporal proximity to events, consider photographers who have won the Pulitzer Prize for documenting singular, fleeting moments (and sometimes altering the course of history with their work). One example is Nick Ut’s shot of children running after a napalm bomb had been dropped on their village Trang Bàng in Vietnam on June 8, 1972. By contrast, Obama’s “four more years” tweet commemorates history instead of documenting it. Yet the Oscars selfie is doubly dehistoricized. However close to the moment the photograph was taken, the tweet itself neither commemorates a historical event nor documents one, but becomes historical through its sheer circulation. After all, the stars in the picture have been photographed and filmed countless times during their careers and during the same night at the ceremony. It’s not as if there were no other shots of Ellen, Jennifer, Angelina, Brad et al from the Oscars. Just as Benjamin predicted in 1936, we can see that “sense of the universal equality of things”… Today, a picture marking a historic re-election can become as significant as a picture showing a group of stars (out of focus and awkwardly posed). The poor quality of the photograph did not in any way at all diminish its incredible power. Or as Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres paradoxically tweeted, “If only Bradley’s arm was longer. Best photo ever.” Faulted yet forever unrivaled. That’s a rather awkward take on Hito Steyerl’s 2009 essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” though she focuses on the image’s poverty in terms of its resolution, not its composition (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/)
The logic of Benjamin’s “sense of the universal equality of things” has long been clear on the Internet. Through the statistics of digital “hits” and “likes” an amateur cat video can make history. As the anti-Islamic clip Innocence of Muslims (2012) showed—a mere movie trailer for a fake film that led to uprisings across Arab and Muslim countries—amateur online efforts can also produce history in violence, injury and death. That’s a long way from the impact of Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph, which consolidated criticism in the US about the Vietnam War. The relationship between photography and history has been inverted. Instead of a photograph documenting a real event and then influencing history, we have a fake film producing history in a most violent manner. This kind of inversion is also part and parcel of the “sense of the universal equality of things.” But what else could be expected from a format that literally shows all phenomena in the very same setting: not only as pixels (in varying numbers) but also and more importantly on a glowing screen (in varying dimensions). When we’re online, a historical event appears in the same way as a banality. The news, amazon.com, a make-up tutorial, a movie trailer, fake or real, a Benjamin essay, a French-English dictionary, some porn, our most private correspondence, a fashion photography book, an art magazine, yet another funny cat video all appear together and interchangeable—not to mention our music, photographs, texts, contacts and other material stored in other programs. What can’t appear online in another window, another tab, on the same screen at the same time? The private is public; the individual can be the mass; the trivial can become historical, the fake real, even terrifyingly so. The “butterfly effect” whereby one butterfly’s wings may end up having a far-reaching impact on global weather is another take on the sense of the universal equality of things. Yet another take can be found in Wim Delvoye’s series of photoshopped images of mountains with banal messages carved into their giant facades for all to read, such as “BELL IS BROKEN / PLEASE KNOCK / TINA” in Mountains (Bell Is Broken, 2000). What’s at stake here is no longer dividing the fake from the real. Instead, the trivial always already has the potential to become monumental.
Wim Delvoye, Bell Is Broken, Please Knock, 2000. © Studio Wim Delvoye, Belgium
The digital image—either moving or still, either put into animated motion or brought to a halt as a still or otherwise modified—is qualified today through the quantification of statistics. As an image goes viral, the fusion of cult value and exhibition value can be calculated in the number of followers and the number of times an image has been seen, liked, embedded or redistributed. What makes Benjamin’s mechanical era different from our digital era is the disappearance of the traditional divide between the media of photography and film. And, as my examples above suggest, there is also the disappearance of the divide between fine art and popular art. Whatever kind of art one makes—whether photoshopping by mouse or weaving by hand—an image of the work is sure to wind up being shown online. In that sense we are all digital artists now, whatever medium we choose. It seems that everyone can become an artist online—a format that has made Beuys’s famous statement come true. What is also different, and crucially so, is the addition of time, velocity, speed. The digital image verges on the vectorial because its movement has not only magnitude but also a kind of upward direction in its exponential growth: 2 million retweets and counting… Unlike a plane, car or missile, the digital image has no singular geographical direction, but its velocity and itinerary can be calculated, somewhat like a projectile, and its expansion around the globe can be tracked. DeGeneres posted the Oscars selfie from her Twitter account at 10pm ET and surpassed the record 780,000 retweets of Obama’s “four more years” in less than one hour. Indeed, the retweeting crashed Twitter for twenty minutes. DeGeneres’s lone tweet was initially retweeted 2.4 million times and embedded in 13,711 websites to make for a total of 32.8 million views on March 2-3. Here, celebrity is matched by celerity: an exponential swiftness of movement. In Benjamin’s era, it might have been possible to calculate the number of reproductions of an image—say as a postcard or in an edition of a book—but it was impossible to calculate just how many people had seen the images, let alone who, where, when and at what rate. (http://mashable.com/2014/03/04/oscars-by-the-numbers-ellen/)
By removing the watermark on much of its stock, Getty Images seems to have grasped this new digital logic, which has shifted from the sole possession of the copyright of the image towards the collection of data about its users. As The Verge reports (http://www.theverge.com/2014/3/5/5475202/getty-images-made-its-pictures-free-to-use), an open embed program lets users drop in the Getty picture they want “as long as the service gets to append a footer at the bottom of the picture with a credit and link to the licensing page.” Since many photographs can now be used legally for free, profits will no longer be earned purely from the tradition of licensing. “The new money comes because, once the images are embedded, Getty has much more control over the images. The new embeds are built on the same iframe code that lets you embed a tweet or a YouTube video, which means the company can use embeds to plant ads or collect user information. (…) [A]s long as the images are being taken as embeds rather than free-floating files, the company will have options.” In effect, Getty Images has moved away from a very auratic concept of the image, reminiscent of Benjamin’s own notion of the aura as “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be”: owning the original, not as a print copy but as copyright; keeping other users away from the original image, either through legal means or through the iconoclasm of watermarks; and, finally, giving users the right to reproduce the image only after paying a licensing fee. But once you sell the right to reproduce one image to one user, either for digital or print, anyone else will eventually find it online and use it. Again: digital reproduction never exists in isolation but always alongside redistribution and other activities. While Benjamin saw the aura as unique, today’s digital aura seems to grow through the omnipresence of an image—either potential or actual—an almost ecstatic kind of immanence, which can be banal and monumental, private and public, individual and collective, local and global. Cult value not only fuses with exhibition value through digitization but also seems to be based upon a direct participation in any single image’s life, whereby tweeting becomes akin to touching a ceremonial relic, if not a religious icon. As the Oscar selfie suggests, the digital aura appears as “the mass phenomenon of proximity, however unique the image may be.” As the new Getty Image policy suggests, mass proximity to one image’s life leaves no traces on the image itself—no wear and tear from touching, no decay through copying—although “poor” copies may indeed end up circulating. Instead, the image carries the fingerprints of its users through their IP addresses and can always be linked back to them. As information, this is a cult from which no one can escape.
That brings me back to the beginning, the blue sticker and hiding a work to preserve or to increase its cult value. Another recent example of hiding is of course Beyoncé’s self-titled work, which was released on December 13, 2013 exclusively on iTunes, without any promotion or prior announcement. As with the Oscars selfie, Beyoncé (2013) left a trail of statistics, generating 1.2 million tweets in its first twelve hours online, according to Twitter, and creating a media sensation that no PR machine could have ever hoped to achieve. To quote Benjamin again: “the cult value would seem to demand that the work of art remain hidden.” And the exhibition value, too. But it’s not so simple. While keeping Beyoncé under wraps, the entertainer has often worked with digital reproductions of herself, both onstage live and in music videos (although “music video” does not seem to describe the moving images that accompany songs today). Consider her performance during the 2013 Superbowl halftime, which reproduced her digitally on stage, turning her body into a chorus line at times (and generating another record 268,000 tweets per minute). Or her video for Countdown (2011), which not only features a host of outfits, hairdos and looks, but also another chorus line of the singer, digitally reproduced ten times over to match the countdown in the song. Indeed, David Bowie—who released the song “Where Are We Now?” from his album The Next Day (2013) on iTunes on January 8, 2013, also without any warning—used a projection of himself in the music video for the song created by Tony Oursler. Yet Queen B’s strategy contrasts with the strategy of an older pop queen, namely Madonna, who created a unique look for each album to enforce its identity, and even with Bowie, who created not just a look but a full-fledged persona for each of his efforts.
Beyoncé, still from Countdown, 2011.
Beyoncé and Beyoncé—as this doubling itself suggests—move away from the icon’s unicity and the aura’s singularity. Again, the digital aura is all about omnipresence and multiplicity, if not a kind of cloning. Beyoncé herself, her songs and the images made to accompany them become iconic through digital multiplicity: manifesting the kind of instantaneous reproductions, redistributions and transformations that take place all the time with images that are circulated online. Beyoncé always already appears to be “digitized,” before any one user has made one of her moves into a nifty GIF. In this way, she anticipates, or even fuels, her online existence, making her mass digital reproduction instantly visible in the work itself while confounding her cult and exhibition values, albeit with a following of herself. Yet who could make for more ideal followers than a set of clones, endlessly and perfectly reproduced, just like so many million retweets? Perhaps these clones reflect the process of embedding itself. Madonna was hailed as a Cindy Sherman of pop music for continually changing her look. Yet her wardrobe changes pale in comparison to those of Beyoncé who can hardly sustain one look in a video for longer than ten seconds. Today, celebrity is celerity. The digital image must be reproduced almost instantaneously; the faster, the better, the more iconic. Her rapid shifts in appearance within one music video do not seem to diminish her identity, nor the characters she plays in her videos for Beyoncé. In the single Pretty Hurts, she plays the beauty pageant contestant “Miss Third Ward,” despite sporting a pixie, a bob and a mane of long hair—not to mention countless make-up and costume changes. Such transformations do not signal new characters, shifts in one character, nor the passage of time (after all, it takes a year to grow a pixie into a bob). Instead, these transformations serve to mark the image’s own mobility and celerity while increasing its ability to be reproduced, inserted and used in many more contexts. While Beyoncé’s work offers digital users a host of choices, it would be hard for anyone to outdo what she has already done to her own image.
In a way, such digital transformations recall the cult value of the Madonna—the Biblical one, not the pop entertainer—who remains always immediately recognizable, despite the many “costume” changes done by countless artists who have depicted the Madonna in paintings and sculptures over the centuries. Digital multiplicity—fusing not only cult value and exhibition value but also images with the statistics of speed—marks a decisive return to the cult, overpowering secular exhibition value. However the Biblical Madonna appears, her auratic power is never diminished through her many reproductions and her many changes in appearance. And however different Beyoncé appears, we still know it’s Beyoncé… Perhaps Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image” has a hidden messianic calling, since a “poor” reproduction of Madonna has just as much spiritual power as an Old Master reproduction. A cardboard reproduction of a Madonna dangling from a car’s rear view mirror is just as powerful auratically as Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary (1606-07), perhaps more so. Yet in contrast to the Biblical Madonna, Beyoncé creates an aura by appearing as multiples in one single place, on one stage, in one video, in digital reproductions that turn the self into an ornament. Writing in 1936 about mechanical reproduction, Benjamin argued that photography displaces cult value with exhibition value “all along the line,” but today these values are fused in a way that makes all images and all reproductions feed a cult, albeit without a religious denomination, beyond celebrity cults. Exhibition value augments the cult “all along the line”. Since even an amateur cat video can become famous, perhaps it’s a cult of looking and simply participating by looking with others. And since the digital image is at once its countless reproductions—potentially in the millions, as the Oscars tweet demonstrates—the image exhibited online today is always understood in terms of its following. Its cult.
Too bad there are so few stats on art works… Nevertheless a more modest series of images comes to mind: Berlin-based photographer Heji Shin’s photographs for the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which fall between advertising and art and which can be fittingly seen on billboards in the Berlin subway system. Each photograph appears to be a composite of two, superimposed on each other. Or perhaps three or more? It’s hard to tell. Much in the vein of Beyoncé reproducing herself digitally, Shin’s photographs document the Deutsche Oper itself as a building—we see backstage, the exterior, rows of seating—as well as scenes beyond its walls: two people embracing, the dome of the Reichstag, a Berlin street at night. Reflections in glass surfaces augment the doubling effects; the building is effectively turned inside out, showing its interior while becoming visually fused with the city. Once again, we see photographs that have already been digitally modified being used to augment an iconic status, in this case to increase the cult value and following of the opera house. And we see photographs that would be hard to modify further. (http://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/de_DE/search#) Photographs have to work these days, somehow to manifest their potential for digital reproduction and modification as well as their mobility and speed. A single photograph, a single artwork and perhaps even a single exhibition do not seem to be sufficient anymore. Everything has to be oh-so-many things at once.
Originally published on Mousse 43 (April–May 2014)