CS Part 1: Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

When Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I doubt he could have imagined just how far technology would evolve (and supposedly it has a way to go yet.) Although we can agree the dilution of ‘aura’ is evident in earlier examples of reproduction, nowadays we are creating reproductions that do indeed have the potential to convey a powerful sense of presence  – despite coming into existence via a continuation of earlier technology. This aura may at times seem strange and ‘uncanny’ but modern works of art nevertheless, with reproduction integral to their existence, contain significant ‘aura’. I’m thinking in particular of Mario Klingman’s work which is extremely unsettling and created by deep learning programmes and some of the robotic creations which, for now, seem situated halfway between art and (not quite) functional. Whether these objects generate genuine aura yet or might one day, or will never do so – will always be ersatz in the truest sense of the word, is perhaps up for debate.

Own image, taken at the Barbican AI: More than Human exhibition (2019)

Some notes made while reading Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 1935 in 2019. (Compare to notes written in 2015)

Of Marx – “He went back to the basic conditions underlying capitalistic production and through his presentation showed what could be expected of capitalism in the future. The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.” Today this seems immensely perspicacious as Western Capitalism looks more and more like the snake that ate itself.” 1

“For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.” 2 Leaving artists to use their other faculties to make art – leading to conceptual led practice

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” 3 LInk this to Paul Virilio’s ideas about time and place being on top of each other.

photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision.” 4 See Maya Deren’s writing about film and using it  – reversing time, positioning places that weren’t originally together side by side.

“technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record“. 4 Democratic – change in power, although somehow reduces awe

“yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated” 4 What’s happening today with AI where the presence of something strange and uncanny but reproduced might feel very powerful, or look at artists who embrace reproduction, most famously Warhol but lately people working with old footage (my favourite example for the time being Paul Wright’s Arcadia) 

that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art; or is it that the shifting of power is causing the old structure, the old ideas about who should be in charge that is causing the withering 

One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. What does society need from its tradition nowadays? Society no longer needs the old structures, it must make new traditions that serve it current and future needs which are going to be very different from that it required during the last 5000 years as humanity exploded. 


Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. This phenomenon is most palpable in the great historical films. It extends to ever new positions. In 1927 Abel Gance exclaimed enthusiastically: “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films . . . all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all founders of religion, and the very religions . . . await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.”* Presumably without intending it, he issued an invitation to a far-reaching liquidation. 4/5 See above, look at how civilisation has developed and what was required at each stage. Out of the system, the structure that it requires to exist emerges. The traditional myths are no longer needed in a new epoch. So no, as Benjamin no doubt knew, those old heroes will not make films. They are products of their era and while we may enjoy their universal messages (and impose our own time-sensitive into any remakes) we will find our own human gods to cherish). 

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.”

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual (6) I really want to think about this statement  – my first dissertation back in 1994 was about ritual and how theatre emerged from that activity. Since then I have had time to think a great deal more about ritual, religion, civilisation – and read/learned about how humanity developed over 000s of years. It seems to me ritual is found within mechanical production – and that artists have subsequently made work in response to that. So, while I see what he means here, I think that a different form of ritual still dominates. It’s just been appropriated by the ‘masters’ of production. I wrote about this I think in UVC A5.

The nineteenth-century dispute as to the artistic value of painting versus photography today seems devious and confused. This does not diminish its importance, however; if anything, it underlines it. The dispute was in fact the symptom of a historical transformation the universal impact of which was not realized by either of the rivals. I’m not sure this rivalry has ever gone away completely although photography has been in the ascendant and now commands gargantuan figures in art sales league tables. There is this sense of overcompensating due to an underlying lack of self-confidence in itself. And, now there are internal tussles over value, between digital and analogue photography and there are those who will never accept that digital might equal or surpass film as a medium. 

Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. Futile, if for no other reason, then because the readymade made it an obsolete question. 

Abel Gance, for instance, compares the film with hieroglyphs: “Here, by a remarkable regression, we have come back to the level of expression of the Egyptians. . . . Pictorial language has not yet matured because our eyes have not yet adjusted to it…This, it would seem, is not the case anymore. But digital material (code) means it is just as easy to make sound as it is pictures or text – and even though photography students are certain that images dominate the world, the evidence suggests they do alongside all the other coded language material out there. Audio artist Aura Satz whose clever name references Benjamin’s Aura and the word ersatz is currently exhibiting work at the Science Gallery. She used information to construct an audio-scape of dark matter which no-one can prove actually exists, although the physicists insist it must do. “The information representing the speed of simulated “axionic” dark matter is usually rendered as pixels on a screen. But why make visual something so clearly unenvisagable? Instead, Satz took the data from 10 points in a circle a few kiloparsecs in diameter in the simulated galaxy to feed her speakers, carefully calibrating frequencies to create the kind of psychoacoustic effects guaranteed to mess with our minds. “You enter and feel you’re part of an energetic, dynamic flow,” says Satz. “It’s unsettling.”” (Webb, 2019) Low-frequency audio art certainly has the ability to affect human systems in a very tangible and visceral way and I will report back on Aura Satz’s work once we’ve been. Richard Webb who writes about the exhibition says, “IT’S a discombobulating 11 minutes in a lock-up garage in a hip part of east London. The pulsating soundscape issuing from 10 speakers encircling me is by turns oddly menacing and strangely thrilling, ebbing and flowing with low throbs and high harmonics.” (ibid)

(Other work by Aura Satz who I am very glad to have discovered – https://www.thewire.co.uk/video/aura-satz-exclusive)

In Section VIII, Benjamin talks about the way the camera and editing techniques are able to conjure up a very experience to an actor on a stage. It is still powerful but different. Maya Deren’s essays on film go much further as she urges filmmakers to avoid trying to emulate theatre but rather make the most of the opportunities afforded by technology.

I love Pirandello and am interested in what the quote Benjamin’s includes: “The film actor,” wrote Pirandello, “feels as if in exile—exiled not only from the stage but also from himself. With a vague sense of discomfort he feels inexplicable emptiness: his body loses its corporeality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice, and the noises caused by his moving about, in order to be changed into a mute image, flickering an instant on the screen, then vanishing into silence . . . The projector will play with his shadow before the public, and he himself must be content to play before the camera.”* * Luigi Pirandello, Si Gira, quoted by Léon Pierre-Quint, “Signification de cinéma,” L’Art cinématographique, op. cit., pp. 14-15. (10)

Experts have long recognized that in the film “the greatest effects are almost always obtained by ‘acting’ as little as possible. . . .” (11) I think is what is actually great about photographing people, and myself too  – the camera catches stuff – you don’t need to do anything. But that is such a skill. Actors, especially stage actors, love to mug and gurn. But it just looks dreadful – except where it is a deliberate experimental ploy. So the camera, inert as it might seem, is also an emergent object. In other words, we humans invented it. We do so in order to peer more closely into ourselves and each other. Thinking of Freud and Otto Fenichel and their scoptophilic urges. And am reminded of the Lotringer book, Overexposed which I referenced on my Sketchbook blog. “Secrets that can be told are not secrets at all. They are some kind of social secretion”. (2007;207) Perhaps in 1837, we constructed an object that can extract social secretions simply by recording a moment. In the final section of my DI&C film, I have used close-up footage of an obstetricians’ training video which sets the camera very close to an anonymous woman’s vagina. She lies beneath a sheet, her vagina shaven, while the camera extracts this ‘social secretion’ in the name of medicine.  She needn’t do anything, except give birth (in the worst possible position to do so.) There is no sound in the video – we are saved from getting to close to the suffering of the woman. Perhaps there is something in that which relates to the Pirandello quote. 

During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute to that oppression, that new anxiety which, according to Pirandello, grips the actor before the camera. (11) Social alienation, like Marx’s factory workers. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. (George Monbiot wrote a good article about this.)

Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past, and for the movie today (14)  – perhaps today it will be gaming. Gaming is existing in a parallel universe for a period (or if you’re an obsessive addict, a great deal of time) – which might have been what church once was. 

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling – Again I am reminded of Virilio. And, it’s interesting that the metaphor Benjamin uses is related to weaponry – thinking of Virilio’s central thesis that war is integral to civilisation’s development. 

With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions…a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye—if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by manQuantum physics and modern science tells us the nature we assume we see is constructed. The moving camera showed us that before. 

Dadaism did so to the extent that it sacrificed the market values which are so characteristic of the film in favor of higher ambitions—though of course it was not conscious of such intentions as here described. The Dadaists attached much less importance to the sales value of their work than to its usefulness for contemplative immersion. This feels so important and accurate. I don’t know or why I’m in this space with my own work – perhaps it’s easier to eschew financial value (a cop-out) but whatever the reasons, I wish I wasn’t but evidently not enough! Anyway, I feel compelled to play with all the ersatz filters out there and it simply does nothing for my reputation on either side of my practice. 

A sketch which I might return to for BOW A1 – the presence of the obvious digitisation although not necessarily the found image.

He quotes Duhamel regarding the masses who watch films “worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries . . . , a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence . . . , which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles” He should have met the masses who stare at screens today! Love Island…

Georges Duhamel, Scènes de la vie future, Paris, 1930, p. 52.

There is so much wrong with this project I made in S&O but there is also a lot that is heading in the right direction and I think it is worth looking at. I had the most catastrophic data loss last year and I feel I may have lost the digitised video of me in the Dada film but I’m not sure I want to use it again  – however, if I do then I’ll need to pay for it to be re-transferred. Which brings me to the preciousness of old technology. In the current series of This Is US, (2019) one of the characters think she’s lost the VHS copy of her late father interacting with her just before he died in awful circumstances. It’s a very moving example (albeit a fictionalised one) of the connection we make with objects. I have sort of done the same thing with my father’s manuscript – and that is not a collection of photographs. But the old paper, the type-writer (mentioned elsewhere in OCA work) all carry some of my father’s presence – or aura. it’s just not godlike. It’s little and humble and personal.

The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. Again, they were merely at in the early stages of what would become a much greater issue for humanity. 

Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.

Looking through my UVC comments on Benjamin, I see they are mostly about Berger. I also see that this time around I have taken a great deal more in and been able to refer to other artists and my own work which looks at this idea of a changing relationship with the idea of aura, power, and something intangible and inexplicable about our consciousness. However, his discussion can be traced across the decades and often remains relevant today when thinking about digital culture.












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