A Strange Weave of Time and Space

Jeanine Griffin
Jul 7, 2019 · 16 min read

In 1985 Jean Francois Lyotard’s influential exhibition on our relationship with technology Les Immateriaux opened with an artefact — an Egyptian bas relief — and ended with images of this artefact, refracted, dematerialised and projected. This curatorial conceit of the trajectory between the auratic, (Walter Benjamin’s term for the authentic, original artefact, singular in space and time) and the technologically reproduced, dispersed and viewed art object seems still relevant in our current period, which is similar to Benjamin’s in its acceleration of technological reproduction and dissemination, though now by digital rather than mechanical means.

This exhibition also heralded the immateriality of the circulation of what artist/theorist Hito Steyerl terms the ‘poor image’, which is ‘a ghost of an image. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and re-edited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction.’[1]

Yet there has recently been a resurgence of interest in curating involving ‘the authentic’ or auratic material object in international exhibition projects [2]. Critic Erika Balsom suggests that set ‘against the promiscuous circulation of proliferating copies the singular event of performance or the uniqueness of the handmade object” becomes important again. Like Steyerl she uses Benjamininan terms to describe this: ‘Objects inscribed by time, as far away from free-floating signifiers as one can get. To put it in Benjamin’s terms: they privilege cult value over exhibition value. They are singular objects, inextricable from their respective material histories, absolutely incompatible with the compress and copy life of a jpeg’. And she suggests: ‘A desire for authenticity has emerged as a reaction to shifts with new media technologies at their core.[3]

So is this renewed concern for the ‘authentic’ in curating a regressive withdrawal from the current post-digital moment or is this juxtaposition able to create new thinking? What is the experience of the auratic artefact and conversely can aura be created by digital artworks and indeed by curating exhibitions in a particular space and time? This seems very pertinent in our current post-digital context — which is defined as a lack of ‘distinction between digital and analogue materiality‘ [4] — the intertwined condition of art and digital media. This exhibition asks where aura, authenticity and the object stand in the post-digital.

Penny McCarthy’s practice often involves the replication, by drawing of ‘original’ images or texts or digital documents from archives, which (by means of the fallible hand-made processes of replication) creates a new image-object and reflects on the relationship with the original artefact. These replications seem to avoid the associations of the denigration of the reproduced copy, by means of the painstaking labour involved. Like archaic copied manuscripts, they become a new ‘authentic’ thing, as well as a copy.

McCarthy’s work Was ist Aura is a kind of apotheosis of aura — a meticulous drawing of one of Benjamin’s ephemeral writings on aura, written on café notepaper, replicated, but replicated by auratic means; singular and excessive in terms of haptic labour as a means of reproduction. It’s a contradiction and an apogee all at once, perfectly circular. It’s been suggested that Benjamin was still in thrall to the romantic idea of the aura he set out to critique and this is at play in the text in this piece, which translates as: “To experience the aura of an appearance or a being means becoming aware of its ability […] to respond to a glance. This ability is full of poetry […] Aura is the appearance of a distance however close it might be.” If this push and pull of proximity and distance, the allure of singular aura and the political potentials of reproduction, was at work within Benjamin at a similar point of accelerationist tendencies in the modes of representation, it is perhaps also the case now.

‘Was ist Aura’, Penny McCarthy, 2019. Courtesy the Artist

Originally drawn from a jpeg found online, McCarthy then remade the work having realised that the scale was too large — the original writing was actually on a small waiter’s order pad. The redrawn piece also includes the reverse of the page, rendering the work almost sculptural. The drawing is then further replicated as a multiple, as part of a waiter’s pad, from which individual pages can be torn and taken away. The work thus becomes even more circular as this hand replication of an auratic object becomes mechanically reproduced by a printing process and disseminated, exemplifying Benjamin’s ‘exhibition value’ which brings us closer to the object and therefore diminishes aura. But as Esther Leslie notes in the ‘Writing Tests’ glossary “There may be something useful and heartening about being able to lay some sort of claim to a small reflection of a less touchable, less accessible original.”[5]

‘The Art Class’, Penny McCarthy, 2017. Courtesy the Artist and Sheffield Hallam University.

The Art Class, is a drawing of a photograph of a modelling class circa 1905 in the plaster cast room at Sheffield School of Art, which contained educational copies of classical sculptures and was made available to female students at night at a time when women weren’t allowed to study there officially. The photograph was made into a postcard for Sheffield City Polytechnic and copied from this, at several removes of reproduction, both mechanical and haptic. Writer Sven Lutticken talks about both photography and the cast being auratic by dint of an indexical relationship to the original[6] — the trace of the original remaining in the copy and this idea of the potentially auratic nature of the cast runs through the exhibition.

This work is put in conjunction with both Oliver Laric’s 3D print from the Lincoln Scans series and a plaster cast of a flayed man sculpture by Edouard Lanteri, produced for teaching purposes, like those depicted in The Art Class. One of the remaining few casts of hundreds which were in the Sheffield School of Art collection — now perhaps rendered auratic by scarcity — it is troubling it its ontology and status.

Cupid and Psyche, from ‘Lincoln Scans’, Oliver Laric. Courtesy the artist.

Whilst the flayed man is missing his skin, the 3D print from Oliver Laric’s Lincoln Scans series feels as if it is only a skin — an ersatz object. 3D scans are built up with almost hollow centres to minimise material costs, so is effectively just a carapace of an object. Its materiality is unsettling: what heft it has is built up with extruded material, leaving contour lines showing the scars of its digital production. It’s been suggested that there is a lack of material, mass, presence and a relationship to the body[7] in 3D printed sculpture, or is it just that this relationship to the body and expectation of a corresponding mass and materiality are highlighted in these troubling objects?

This is part of a larger series of 3-D scans of objects from The Collection, Lincoln, which are made available to download and use, free from copyright restriction, making the collection available to an audience outside of its normal geographic proximity and treating the objects as starting points for new works. In this, Laric is following Benjamin’s excitement at technological reproducability allowing for us all to become producers and editors of work — ‘prosumers’ rather than solely consumers of it.

However, Laric is also interested in the idea that, contra Benjamin, the aura of an artwork may not be dispersed by technological reproduction, but possibly augmented by it. If data is actualised anew on each screen or in each exhibition (like a performance of a score of music), it’s an original every time and it can be argued that every digital copy therefore has an aura that a mechanical copy does not have.[8] ‘This aura is no longer based on the permanence of the “original,” but on the transience of the copy.’[9] Oliver Laric echoes this sentiment in his video Versions — a source-less collage of matching iterations of imagery and unattributed voiceover texts, in which the narrator intones (via a quotation from writer Henry James) ‘an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one’ which by being ’overtly fabricated and publicly constructed; has more capacity to gather or recollect meaning and sanctity’ (ventriloqised from theorist Boris Groys). Digital reproduction then becomes auratic.

Still from ‘Versions’, 2010, Oliver Laric, Courtesy the Artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin
Still from ‘Versions’, 2010, Oliver Laric, Courtesy the Artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin

The replicated sculptures in the video work recall the flayed man plaster cast and its absent twin and also the classical cast courts which were part of the inspiration for Florian Roithmayr’s research project The Humility of Plaster[10]. The idea of the cast and the experience of the casting process are key concerns in Roithmayr’s work. As well as being a means to reproduce and disseminate objects for educational and other purposes (the curator of the V&A cast court refers to it as a Victorian version of google images) it also offers the possibility of a creating a new original.

Florian Roithmayr, ‘these here withins 02’, 2018. Courtesy the artist and MCA & Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, and Wysing Arts Centre. Photography by Tim Bowditch

Florian Roithmayr’s work these here withins 02 draws attention to the auratic specificity of plaster casting, creating unrepeatable constellations of material. He aims to capture the unexpected gestures and occurrences that occur in the gap between mould and cast. These organic-feeling, coral-like plaster pieces exaggerate Lutticken’s notion of unique trace, as they retain the imprint of their instantaneous creation as a cast of expanding foam in the moment of its coalescing. They were shown last year in the context of the cast court at Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, putting different methods and objectives of casting in conjunction with eachother. His work is here in a broader conversation with the flayed man plaster cast, The Art Class, Laric’s 3D print and James Clarkson’s slip cast object.

James Clarkson‘s work Giggle — a ceramic slip cast replica of the Ikea FNISS bin — also engages with questions around casting and reproduction. It functions as an exploration of authenticity in mass production, of how manufactured objects might be haunted by the ideas and forms of the past. This work harks back to Benjamin’s time and the upsurge of mechanical reproduction in the 1920s/30s as Clarkson proposes that the bin is a riff on a design by Keith Murray, a designer who had come to Britain in the 1920’s to work for the Wedgewood company, who himself was influenced by the reductive stylings of the Bauhaus. Clarkson is interested in how the copy, with its change of material, functions in terms of our perception and interaction with the object. He notes that the work also concertinas together different times and in this brings a sense of the simultaneity that has been ushered in by technology. The web allows things from different time periods to be put in direct conjunction, with little sense of past and present — different forms are entangled in a non-linear timeline of objects and repetitions of objects.

‘Giggle’, 2018, James Clarkson. Courtesy the artist.
‘Line (Diptych)’, 2016, © Cory Arcangel; Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Like Oliver Laric, Cory Arcangel’s work has a similar lack of concern for the singular object and an interest in making available the wherewithal to reproduce his works, through proprietary software instructions or making his working method open source. His diptych of plotter drawings test the boundaries of authorship and artificiality. The graphite line drawings are created using an obsolete automated pencil plotter machine, programmed by drawing into a digital pad. Despite these archaic technological means of production (a hybrid of mechanical and digital reproduction and a translation between the two), the repeated drawing retains a painstakingly hand-made feel. Arcangel’s work is in some ways representative of the broader sphere of post-internet artwork whereby open source and networked culture allows production methods to be replicated or restaged, foregrounding the question of the unique value of the artwork. He notes that ‘hierarchies of authenticity might be best considered relative’[11], using the example of music’s current tuning standard — whereby C Major is tuned differently now to how it would have been two or three hundred years ago, so a current Bach rendition would be inauthentic to the original, despite being true to its score or code.

‘Table of Contents: Moons’, 2018, Jan Hopkins. Courtesy the artist.

Jan Hopkins’ drawings are also created by low-fi robot plotters using pens, brushes, ink and bleach. They muddy the waters of the ‘authentic’, the handmade and the technologically produced and investigate the cybernetic feedback loops between humans and technology. The works are filtered through a timeline impacted by technology since the moon landings (the subject of the drawings are often either the moon or the domestic table the TV sat on when this moment was broadcast). This interface of the domestic and the technological aligns with the interface between human and machine drawing. She is interested in whether aura is lost in the digital, whether these drawings produced by computer and plotter are perceived as unique or authentic. Some drawings and digital animations are created by means of randomised code, meaning their uniqueness is guaranteed and they have an auratic ‘here and now’.

‘Birdsong’, 2017, Margarita Gluzberg, Courtesy the artist

In Margarita Gluzberg’s large scale drawing of record grooves from a 78rpm record of birdsong, she is reproducing an analogue recording technology (itself replicating ‘liveness’) in singular, auratic form. She suggests that translating an idea into a medium or from one medium to another “is intrinsically a digital signal, a digital translation as it’s a discontinuous, discrete representation”. For this reason, she posits that drawing is by nature digital rather than analogue as it is a point of translation, a discrete moment of transmission — unlike the continuous analogue wave. At the same time, she proposes that we are constantly meshing the analogue and the digital and that the translation of the ‘real’ into data and back to the analogue though perception is constantly happening in art.

This interweaving of analogue and digital is also apparent in Diana Taylor’s work which often utilises the grid — a basic means of allowing for reproducibility. The grid references the digital but is hand screenprinted and often overlaid by hand stitching, embodying time and haptic commitment. The textile pieces include screen-printed low-res images of the aftermath of natural disasters along with motifs, diagrams and samples of different types of fabric. These are overlaid, scanned and copied, subjected to digital entropy and entanglement. New work includes the ‘wire mesh’ mapping of the 3D scanning process, like a flattened topology, worked into by hand; the code as latent, waiting to be actualised. Influenced by William Morris and a circular sense of time, the work integrates hand-made craft and these flattened 3D scans of fabric, into a re-assembled analogue/digital artefact.

‘Falling into Space’, 2019, Diana Taylor. Courtesy the artist.

Rather than offering a single authoritative text about the exhibition in the gallery space, ideas around the exhibition are explored by means of revisiting curatorial strategies from the aforementioned iconic exhibition on art & technology Les Immateriaux, which took place at The Pompidou Centre, Paris in 1985. Instead of a text or guide to the exhibition Les Immateriaux used sound, specifically speech, and had an audio headset which played excerpts from philosophical and literary texts[12]. Here the soundtrack from Oliver Laric’s video work is allowed to permeate the space with its mash-up of unattributed spoken quotes about the authentic.

Tim Etchell’s piece on headphones Penmanship Exercise (After John Cage), allows the visitor to cut off from this soundtrack and listen to another audio work which manipulates and layers original vocal and instrumental sound from a John Cage project called Indeterminacy, which describes a mechanical drawing arm (a predecessor of those employed by Arcangel/ Hopkins) running amok. There is an orchestrated process of accumulation and decay akin to that which happens when something is multiply replicated and degraded, building to a polyphonic, contrapuntal loop followed by an ultimate stripping back, leaving us with a moment of the singular original recording again. The audio from both pieces overlays and inflects the visual work.

The exhibition has no catalogue, instead it revisits another curatorial strategy from Les ImmateriauxEpreuves D’Ecriture (which translates as Writing Tests or First Drafts). This project invited writers to cumulatively create a glossary of terms related to the exhibition, using Minitel machines which networked the participants pre-internet. They were invited to give their definitions (“2–10 lines maximum”) of some terms from a supplied list of words related to the exhibition and also respond to (“refute, complete, modulate, etc”) the definitions of other writers, creating a polyvocal, cumulative definition of terms. Online collective writing like Wikipedia is now commonplace but texts alongside exhibitions are usually still individually authored. For A Strange Weave.. the artists and invited writers Michelle Atherton, Erika Balsom, Sharna Jackson, Yuen Fong Ling, Esther Leslie and Lucy Steeds have also contributed to a cumulative online glossary of terms related to the exhibition, in a project called Writing Tests, which can be viewed and added to at www.astrangeweave.org.

In a context where we now see most artwork through online documentation and can even experience exhibitions as virtual walkthroughs[13], can an argument be made for the auratic potential of a physical exhibition in creating a singular constellation of works and people in a specific time and place — following Benjamin’s definition of aura as ‘presence in time and space [..] unique existence at the place where it happens to be’[14]? In the context of the modernist exhibition model being potentially eclipsed by models utilising online platforms, social media, VR and networked culture globally (the logical extension of Benjamin’s ‘exhibition value’ and technological reproduction), writer Lucy Steeds argues for the retention or reinvigoration of Benjamin’s opposing term — aura or ‘cult value’. Here cult value is repositioned as ‘the ritual engagement of publics’, its potential for ‘convening collectivities’ by reinstating the ‘here and now of art’s display’. [15] Because it is in the exhibition that the artwork is entangled with other artworks and with the proximate body of a viewer in a ‘sensory matrix of the haptic, visual and auditory’[16] — a ‘strange weave of time and space’[17].

A Strange Weave of Time and Space
curated by Jeanine Griffin
Site Gallery Project Space 12–28 July 2019

[1] Hito Steyerl ‘ In Defense of the Poor Image’, E Flux, Journal #10 — November 2009. http://www.e flux.com/journal/10/61362/in defense of the poor image/ , accessed 6 November 2017

[2] eg. Documenta 13 with its ‘artefactual brain’ and Venice Biennale 2013, recent Palais de Tokyo exhibitions by Neil Beloufa, George Henry Longley and Kader Attia and Jean Jacques Lebel — heavy with objects with particular social and political significance.

[3] Erika Balsom: ‘Against the Novelty of New Media: the Resuscitation of the Authentic’, in Omar Kholeif You are Here: Art after the Internet, (Manchester: Cornerhouse, 2015)p.72

[4] On Remembering a Post-Digital Future’, James Charlton, in A Peer Reviewed Journal About… Post-Digital Research, 3.1 (2014) http://www.aprja.net/on-remembering-a-post-digital-future/ accessed 25.9.18

[5] in the entry for ‘Copy’: https://astrangeweave.org/editword.php?id=8

[6] “One could therefore say .. that in the case of both photo and cast “the element of contact remains a guarantee of uniqueness, authenticity and power — and therefore of aura […] Mechanical reproduction, then, does not forcibly destroy aura, as Walter Benjamin claimed.” Sven Lutticken “The Imaginary Museum of Plaster Casts”, https://svenlutticken.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/sven-lucc88tticken-imaginary-museum.pdf, accessed at 5.3.18

[7] Mark Wilsher ‘Virtual and Other Bodies’, Art Monthly no 427, June 2019, pp.11–14

[8] Boris Groys’s argument in Monday Begins On Saturday, eds Ekaterina Degot and David Riff, pp. 59–64. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013) and In the Flow, (London & New York: Verso, 2016) p.144. Also “There is no such thing as a copy. In the world of digitalized images, we are dealing only with originals — only with original presentations of the absent, invisible digital original. The exhibition makes copying reversible: It transforms a copy into an original.” ‘From Image to Image File — and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization’, in Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008) p. 83–91

[9] Hito Steyerl ‘ In Defense of the Poor Image’, E Flux, Journal #10 — November 2009. http://www.e flux.com/journal/10/61362/in defense of the poor image/ , accessed 6.11.b17

[10] exploring the materiality of collections housing plaster moulds and casts across Europe, enabled through a partnership between the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Kettle’s Yard, and Wysing Arts Centre, culminating in exhibitions at these venues and the book Aftercast (London: Tenderbooks, 2018)

[11] ‘The Warhol Files: Cory Arcangel on Andy Warhol’s Long Lost Computer Graphics.’ Artforum, Summer 2014, p 330/331

[12] Lyotard stated: “We must not ­issue ­the ­visitor ­with ­instructions,­ whether ­an ­instruction ­manual ­or­ an — instructive ­pamphlet,­ that­ is, ­information ­booklets.­ We­ should ­use ­as ­few­ text­ panels ­as ­possible,­ since ­these ­are ­still­ of ­the ­order ­of ­inscription­ –­as ­I­ have ­explained ­before,­ the ­inscription ­of­ the ­space­ — ­and ­instead­ should­ use­ the ­medium ­of ­speech, ­of ­sound,­ which ­belongs ­to­ the ­art ­of­ time.­….. by ­using­ oral speech­ we­ can ­avoid ­the­ monotony ­of­ written ­explanation, ­which­ generally ­is­ of ­the­ order­ of ­instruction; ­we ­can­ envisage­ using ­citations, ­or­ textual­ creations, ­from­ completely­ different­ genres. ­We­ can ­well ­imagine­ poems,­ fragments ­of ­literary ­prose,­ instructions ­in ­the ­imperative ­mode,­ questions,­ exclamations,­ all­ of ­this ­being­–­at­ least ­this ­is ­our ­plan ­– ­read ­by ­a­ good,­ well known ­reader, ­and ­thus ­making ­use ­of­ the­ specific ­power ­of ­speech.” ‘Jean Francois Lyotard discusses the exhibition Les Immateriaux with Judy Annear and Robert Owen, Paris 28 March 1985’, p2/3. Typescript of (unpublished) interview in English in Pompidou Archive box 940330/233.

[13] https://v21artspace.com

[14] Walter Benjamin ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ In Illuminations, (London: Pimlico, 1999), p 214

[15] Lucy Steeds, ‘What is the future of exhibition histories? Or towards art in terms of it’s Becoming-Public’ in The Curatorial Conundrum, What to Study? What to Research? What to Practice?, Edited by Paul O’Neill, Mick Wilson and Lucy Steeds (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016)p. 22 and also ‘We might ask whether the politics-based potential of art — actualized in the event of its exhibition, as announced by Benjamin — might be complemented or inflected by ‘ritual’ practices, if these are rethought so that there is no longer a reliance on the ‘cult’ but a grounding instead in intersubjectivity’ Lucy Steeds, ‘Contemporary Exhibitions: Art at Large in the World’, introduction to Exhibition (Cambridge and London:Whitechapel/MIT Press, 201) p 20 and ‘Art can serve ritual purposes without insisting on originality or authenticity, on the unique apparition of distance, or on individualistic contemplative absorption. If we free our understanding of ritual from notions of fixity, hierarchy and subservience, it may provide us with a renewed basis on which art — in a particular context, over a particular duration — enables an event-based experience of commonality, galvanizing coordinated action.’ Contribution to Aroop (New Delhi), vol.2, no.1, July-December 2017 (special issue ed. Nancy Adajania, ‘Some things that only art can do: A Lexicon of Affective Knowledge’), pp.80–81

[16] in The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Cultures, Paul O’Neill (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012) p 91

[17] “What is aura actually? A strange weave of time and space: the unique appearance or semblance of a distance no matter how close it may be” from ‘A Little History of Photography’, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: 1927–1934, Vol. 2, Part 2, 1931–34. Ed. by Michael W Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith (Harvard and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999)p.518

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