CS: Chapter 2 ‘Photography’ Howell’s (2011) Visual Culture

We are asked to look at Chapter 2 “Photography” by Richard Howells (2011). To begin with, the chapter sums up the very short history of photography. Although not Areilla Azoulay’s non-Cartesian version, which I talked about in my DI&C essay, and which posits that we cannot separate the invention of photography from its related activities, that of empire building which began in the 14th century when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and began the process of taking people and land on behalf of European conquerors. I’ll touch on this briefly later. However, the author does take us back to cave-drawing (as far back as 25 000 years rather than 40 000 which is where academics have placed the earliest discoveries; coded symbols that can found over eons of space and time). This is important because photography is simply one more way for us to exteriorise our inner selves, to other the self, to store consciousness. That it’s mechanical is important but doesn’t render it less than.

It was interesting to touch base with the received story again, having read about it in various books while studying but specifically, in a wonderfully entertaining book called Capturing the Light by Helen Rappaport and Roger Watson (2013) which goes into much greater detail, although with less critical depth.

However, I found it difficult after reading the chapter to get beyond the inclusion of Roger Scruton’s essay, Photography and Representation‘ in “The Aesthetic Understanding‘, Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture‘ (1983). Scruton isn’t only a Conservative, he is a reactionary extremist who promotes the most appalling ideas and is a friend of the Spiked bunch, who, quite frankly, seem completely nuts. (And I used to quite like some of what Frank Ferudi said about parenting.) Scruton was recently sacked from his position at the head of the Government funded Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (what he was doing there, is anybody’s guess – a mate of a mate, no doubt) for making comments that aren’t even worth repeating. He has spent his whole life offending people and seems to feel hard done by, having ostracised himself from various British academic institutions. His own father was, by all accounts, chaotic and damaged and very anti-establishment. Read into that what you will.

I appreciate that the original chapter was written some time ago (2003) and Scruton may, in keeping with the times and contemporary discourse, have virulently amplified his conservative message in recent years. But I find his argument sort of ridiculous – and Howell talks about it being flawed. I also know difference of opinion is important and having both sides of any argument is thought to bring about some form of synthesis, leading to a balanced idea of reality. However, modern science and philosophy are rendering the arguments included in Howell’s chapter and in particular Scruton’s, not only flawed but almost irrelevant. Before introducing Scruton, Howell tells us how some people felt that photography cannot be art because it merely records the natural world, reality,  as it is, which is where Scruton we are told, positions himself.

For a moment, I’ll deviate here and talk a bit about ‘reality’.

Two years or so ago I got off a train at a station beyond my intended stop. I realised my mistake but wasn’t sure how long I’d been distracted by my book, and looked at the map on the platform to see where I was and where I needed to get to. For a short moment, but long enough to cause a sense of panic and alarm, my memory stopped working. I recognised the signs on the maps as signs but had no recollection of what any of them meant, no access to their meaning. It was like looking at a map in a foreign language at the same time as not even knowing what a language might be. It may have been an early sign of something sinister healthwise to come, however, it has not happened since and I hope and suspect it was simply a brain glitch bought about by stress, tiredness, and distraction. It felt like it lasted about a minute. The experience, however, demonstrated what my consciousness and its integral function, memory, does for me. It enables me to get from A to B so I can survive. Without that ability I would not be able to move about in the world, feeding myself, interacting with people, finding a mate – doing all the things that keep the genes alive and reproducing. This is what our consciousness is – an evolved survival mechanism. And as hard as it is to accept, we have evolved to see only what we need to see in order to exist. We have a limited, locally based view of reality that is myopic but highly specialised. Some criticise this materialist view suggesting it leads to emptiness, an existence that lacks meaning, but the illusion of reality is literally all we have and to belittle or undervalue it isn’t automatic or necessary. One hopes we can afford to be honest with ourselves, although as we look about today, it does at times seem perilous and perhaps terrifying for people.

I am looking forward to receiving my delayed copy of “The Case Against Reality” by Donald D Hoffman. But since 2015 I have been reading as much as I can to understand this illusion of reality including Reality is Not What is Seems Rovelli (2016), The Ego Trick Baggini (2015), and The Biological Mind Jasonoff (2018) amongst many others which look at life systemically. I think the science contained in these books potentially nullifies any arguments about photography being simply a recording of reality – because our reality is SO subjective and particularly nowadays when digital technology is fundamentally changing what we expect from reality  – and because any language form, photography included, is an emergent property which is what is so fascinating about mark making – however we choose to do it. And that’s before we even touch on individual subjectivity (as opposed to species subjectivity), technical ability, and choice, or processing whether in the darkroom or your desktop.

And in any case, the arguments against photography of any description being an art form because it is  a copy, where photographers simply record rather than dictate what’s included, were made redundant the moment a urinal was placed in an art gallery. If you think photographs merely copy reality, then they are the ultimate readymade. Although I do see some conservatives are likely to dismiss appropriation as a viable art form too, missing the point of it entirely. But like the evolving nature of gods and God as civilisation develops, what we need from art changes too. And conceptualism rather than dogmatic religious iconography is clearly more relevant today as the nature of reality is unpicked and newly understood. Photography, being an emergent property that came along with the evolution of technology over several centuries alongside its sibling, or perhaps its close cousin, Capitalism, is not only interesting as a concept but crucial to the way we see and understand life today, and therefore an integral form in any artistic exploration regardless of whether it ‘ideal or real’ (Scruton’s distinctions). Even if all the artist is doing is making something pretty, which is of course just as valid as documenting society, or commenting on language.  These distinctions are as silly as the ones about digital technology not being ‘lovely’ enough to produce art.

I am looking forward to receiving my book by Hoffman so I can keep investigating this subject and bringing it into my own work. In the meantime, I used to think that all the technological advances we relied on were changing our evolutionary path whereas now I see that they are part and parcel of our evolutionary path. They are expressions which lead to feedback loops. I think that’s why distinguishing between forms and saying one is art and one isn’t is a limited and limiting view.

CS Part 1: Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes, 1964

While doing UVC in 2016, I was asked to look at Rhetoric of the Image and talk about a couple of advertisements, relating them to Barthes’ ideas. It’s really interesting to look back, as the examples I explored were to do with the yet-to-be-held referendum. Barthes’ style is so opaque at times, I am still not sure if I was making the right sort of connections, but I don’t think I’d change much of what I said as I view my blog in retrospect, with three years of history between the time I wrote it and today.

  1. A slight diversion from Barthes’ essay but relevant and perhaps linked to another of his well-known essays: It’s interesting I picked up on the tautology in the advert  – it seems to me (in my personal and most likely biased view) that Brexit and tautology are very closely related. “A vote is a vote” in the advert seems like a forerunner to “Brexit is Brexit”. Do we really need to be told a word means a word? Why must political ideas all be reduced to meaningless empty circular straplines? Does this negate meaning or invert it? Is the advertising industry guilty of dumbing us all down to such an extent, that we really are only capable of hearing and taking on board – ‘Apple means Apple’. See my Notes on Myth Today (1957) “Tautology – An ugly thing. One takes refuge in tautology as one does in fear, or anger, or sadness. Tautology creates a dead motionless world. See my blog post for Project 1 – Operation Black Vote advert” (Field, 2016)

    From: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/may/25/eu-referendum-poster-minority-ethnic-voters (24/06/19)
  2. Looking at the advert I originally, critiqued, I am also struck by the dreadful stereotypes it perpetuates. This is hardly surprising, given the advertising industry tends to be populated by people who might never have met anyone who exists outside their quite narrow circles. We must all fit into neat little boxes and woe-betide anyone who can’t. There is no space for anyone ill-fitting in the post-post-modern digital archive of consumers out of which our current reality is forced.
  3. I have been stuck these last few years by how ignorant of others less fortunate than them, even the most well-meaning people can be. Friends who work in or near Whitehall might have the best ‘liberally’ minded intentions but simply have no idea of the suffering that is actually taking place in this country, of what drove people to vote against the ruling classes in 2016. The UK still seems shackled to a ruling class, many of whom are the great-grandchildren of those who ruled in centuries gone by. That British people aren’t more shocked by this is incredible. That people don’t see it or question it is extraordinary. However, I think and hope more and more people will be less satisfied and more incredulous by that reality, as social media reveals the extraordinary levels of incompetence amongst our rulers. Myths are being upended by social media, but sadly at the same time, new myths are being constructed. We are in a state of chaos and flux.
  4. Yesterday, I saw Andy Holden’s Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape (2011-2016). In it, Holden compares Capitalism to a cartoon character who runs off the cliff but has no idea of the danger until it becomes conscious and then collapses. He likens this to the banking collapse but that might be seen as one wave in a succession of waves, to come. Perhaps society is becoming conscious of the myths we have lived with – what will it take to up-end them, or are they in the most horrific way upending themselves? The hivemind is far more complex than we understand – as a group, we do not seem able to take control of events until they have run their course, no matter how horrific or vile we understand them to be. 

Some notes of my most recent reading of Rhetoric of the Image:

The Linguistic message

  • Linguists, we are told, were suspicious of the linguistic nature of the image. Surely, this can’t the case anymore as people use images and emoticons to communicate more and more, perhaps even usurping text. (33) See page 11 of Derrida’s Grammatology (tr. Spivak, 2016)… “[the] nonfortuitous conjunction of cybernetics and the ‘human sciences’ of writing leads to a more profound reversal”.)
  • Images and text, he states, are ‘antipathetic’ to lived experience. (33) Douglas Crimp also touches on this in The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism, which I looked at previously. Again, Derrida writes “In this play of representation, the point of origin becomes ungraspable. There are things, reflecting pools and images, an infinite reflection, from one to the other, but no longer a source, a spring.” I wonder if this is why we’ve reached this place where tautology rules. We are just so far removed from the origin through layers and layers of representation – we cannot find it anymore.
  • Barthes then begins by staying he will use adverts to explain himself as meaning is intentional and frank. The signifiers are “full, formed, with a view to the optimum reading” (34) Barthes’ might have been interested to see the following adverts...

These adverts (regardless of one’s thoughts about the content) are tapping into society’s mistrust of advertising and consequently meaning. As the meaning of advertising signification is now suspected of being false, (and so much more besides) we might question Barthes statement in retrospect. Although unusual, these adverts do not subscribe to Barthes analysis so easily. Meaninglessness is a big issue today – also referred to as ‘fake news’. A century of being manipulated by advertisers might be responsible for this sense of society having been gas-lit, leaving us all in an unstable landscape (like the cartoon landscape of Holden’s film). Images, which can and do invite multiple readings, even with the tyranny of advertising slogans, but which ultimately lie to us have contributed to this.

(Below – my comments are in orange, otherwise quoted from Barthes)

  • Panzini – French and ‘Italianicity’ Denotational and connotational  – in a single sign therefore seen as one message.
  • Image – not linear, order therefore not important
  • A return from the market =  freshness (despite the dried and tinned aspects) and domesticity
  • Half open bag = shopping around for oneself as opposed to the hasty filling up of a more ‘mechanical’ civilisation.
  • Colour (which we don’t see in the reader) implies Italianicity. Stereotypes (based on the fact this is a French advert selling a product that is supposedly Italian. Is this another example of Tautology or reinforcing a message which has already been stated in the pastiche of a name, again underscoring stereotype of otherness – a different group)
  • The sign of the still life (nature-morte) – heavily cultural and reflects history of art in the advert (sales, mechanical, mass produced)
  • “A message without a code”? see below
  • The Panzini photograph/advert offers three messages – The linguistic message and two iconoc messages which Barthes’s suggest  – we might have the right to separate: the perceptual message, and the cultural message. (Confusion comes about from function of the mass image).
  • Linguistic message – “today at the level of mass communications, title captain, accompanying press ect… we are still civilisation of writing”. Some suggest we are becoming less and less so – as iconic signs are used to advertise very well known brands more often than ever. (However, for now, at any rate, these images emerge from written code (the computer translates to another code which we don’t understand and cannot read and that too is a sequence of symbols))
  • gisele-chanel-no-5



  • Linguistic sign acts as anchorage and relaythe above images have very little or no writing (which Barthes’ says doesn’t matter, any presence acts as anchorage and relay) I wonder if the power contained within certain corporate non-linguistic signs are so great that it is able to operate as an anchor itself while being read by today’s consumers. If anchorage is control, and certain of its sign then this type of sign is possibly the most self-assured. 
  • All images are polysemous – underlying their signifiers, a floating chain of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others. Polysemy poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as dysfunction (note the language of Freud). 
  • Societies ‘fix’ the floating signifieds to counter the terror of uncertain signs. Today, it might seem there are too many unfixed signs as we transition from one epoch to whatever is coming next, digital technology perhaps destabilises, the reaction against this (culture war, as it has been termed) is to head backward, to fix things down, to make things certain again. You see this is the rhetoric of Make America Great Again. A giant, global attempt to fix unstable, ‘flickering signifiers’  (Hayles, 1999).  Additionally, all advertising then taps into this terror. Buy this thing and feel safe is the underlying connotated message. Powerful, beautiful, one of the crowd, above the crowd – all of these are second level messages which sit above the initial one – about keeping the ‘terror of uncertain signs’ at bay. 
  • Linguistic signs have the power to suggest, “What goes without saying …” & “What is conspicuous by its absence” (Chandler, loc 1622) Anchorage banishes one possible signified…it acts a counter taboo. Anchorage can be ideological (and Barthes Myth plays a critical part in this), it remote controls, subtle dispatching, certain of its sign. anchorage is control 
  • With respect to the liberty of the signifieds of the image, the text has thus a repressive value and we can see that it is at this level that the morality and ideology of a society are above all invested. 

The Denoted Image

  • Barthes tells us – only the photograph is able to transmit the (literal) information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation. Drawing is coded he says, i.e. the style of drawing transmits information. But he insists the photograph does not. Again, unless I’m really misinterpreting something, I find this difficult to accept. Photographic decisions, especially today, seem to contain all sorts of social and structural information – but then today’s photographs are more like drawing than ever as various levels of digital manipulation (or decisions to avoid it) impute information about the society  – in the same way, perspective in drawing does in the West – and therefore, potentially say a great deal.  The expertise and practiced execution of any drawing carry connotation and denote messages too. I cannot see why lighting, sets, film stock (or the digital re-enactment of it) don’t also carry such connotations. I don’t believe that just because something is mechanical, it doesn’t carry a code. In fact, it might carry a very specific code informed by ‘the apparatus’, which is very difficult to shrug off except by experimental photographers who are deliberately finding ways to debate with the code directly, as argued by Vilém Flusser (2000)
  • I wonder if today, our suspicions of photography negate this argument of Barthes of a photograph being without a code, and especially amongst tech-savvy sophisticated younger readers of images who have grown up with Snapchat and Instagram filters. 
  • If I were to use a Snapchat style image of a woman with animated sparkly bunny rabbit ears in an advert – there are several possible readings (perhaps anchored by an ironic strapline for more sophisticated consumers or else reinforced by one aimed at teens who love that kind of thing) but the structural code is inescapable and only a Martian would find it difficult to read. There are quite specific codes in all of the examples I have included here – the overzealous processing in the Vote is. Vote advert speaks volumes, for instance. 

Refs: All accessed 23/24 June 2019


Happy Birthday, Coco: Here Are the Most Iconic Chanel No. 5 Ads Ever


30 More Creative Billboard Ads


Barthes. R (2013) Rhetoric of the Image in Visual Culture: A Reader, London, Open University, Sage Publications; 33-40

Flusser, V. (2000) Towards a Philosophy of PhotographyTrans. Mathews A. (Kindle Edition) London: Reacktion Books

N. K. Hayles. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


CS Part 1: The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism, Douglas Crimp, 1980

As with the previous post, I first looked at this during UVC. It is a less hefty, daunting article than Benjamin’s and therefore more digestible. My first encounter seems to have been about becoming familiar with information; names, concepts, era-specific concerns.


  • I have begun to suspect that artists are sometimes, perhaps even often, less radical than I had always assumed (and I am wondering if the general population also assume this about artists or was it just me and my naivety?) We tend to expect radical mavericks in our artists; in my imagination they are the people who question the status quo and hold a light up to societies’ assumptions. But, in fact, I sense a deep, (perhaps dishonest) conservatism ‘out there’ which stems from the institutions and their weight in terms of authoritative history – and I wonder if educational institutions, in particular, are guilty of perpetuating this. Do they keep artists in shackles? Perhaps the artists feel safe, as they focus inwards, making work that satisfies the institution’s demands and reinforces its authority, but which at times risk being irrelevant to anyone outside that circle. Crimp begins his article by examining this as he discusses postmodernism and the ‘return of repression’. He talks about postmodernism being a breach from modernism which is dictated by said institutions – namely “the first the museum; then, art history” (91). He suggests it is a fantasy that art is free from the dogma I have described above and that postmodernism aims to rupture that fantasy, in this instance by valuing the copy, the unoriginal, the appropriated. This was a direct response to Modernism, emerging in the 80s, and as an alternative and possibly an antidote to performance in the 70s, where ephemerality, as opposed to fixed longevity, was valued.
  • He goes on to question the dogma that only an original can contain presence; “it may seem a bit odd, because Laurie Anderson’s particular presence is effected through the use of reproductive technologies which really make her quite absent”. Today this looks like an early realisation that the direction reproduction is heading in means we will no longer be able to undervalue reproduction as something cheap and tacky, which we might do with the postcards of the Mona-Lisa. (And which people today do with Snap Chat filters for example.) Perhaps it’s already been written, but I am wondering how a short-story about an all-powerful ‘big Other’ which was conceived of and written in code, based on copies and reproductions, might look.
  • “The presence of the artist in the work must be detectable; that is how the museum knows it has something authentic. But it is this very authenticity, Benjamin tells us, that is inevitably depreciated through mechanical reproduction, diminished through the proliferation of copies” (94) There is so much work nowadays which relies on, queries, makes use of “copies and copies of copies”. I will be referring to Eric Kessels’s  2011 24 Hours in Photos project tomorrow in a workshop for 11-year-olds. Kessel’s work not only carries his presence but the presence of mass production, of the abundance of images, the and the literal physical weight of the spectacle and consumerism, as well as digital materialism (is there such a thing? I think so). The prints, usually only seen as data on a screen, are piled in a church illuminating the shift in power – from god to consumerism or the masses depending on which way you choose to look at it. Perhaps both are valid?  This conversation about aura and reproduction seems like it should be irrelevant today – perhaps it’s been usurped by the dull old insistence by some that analogue is valuable and digital isn’t. Although that particular nonsense might still carry weight in a few, but hopefully increasingly limited circles, I suspect it will need to give itself up soon as more and more people make work about code and its ability to self-generate, or which is interactive, or links up with the science that will take our reality wherever it is going. However, I’m not entirely sure the educational institutions – especially in relation to photography – are as caught up as they might be…
  • “It would seem, though, that if the withering away of aura is an inevitable fact of your time”… we humans will always mourn the passing of time and anything that tells us it is happening, such as technology developing (I wonder if those early wheel adaptors lamented the loss of a time when there was no such ease for older hardier humans who did without!) Even so, both Crimp and Benjamin are actually in favour of this withering away of aura (as each sees it) as it can be viewed as instrumental in the “liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.” (95).  However, it seems to me cultural heritage continues, to this day, to dominate and retains the world’s long-held structures in position, even with all the melting and blending of conceptual boundaries we know are taking place beneath the surface and above. (I’m continually reminded of the Royal Academy and its significant aura of respectability, power and the calm self-assured certainty it exudes.) Cultural heritage may be secular now in many instances, but it still dominates. 
  • “…then equally inevitable are all those projects to recuperate it, to pretend that the original and the unique are still possible and desirable. And this is nowhere more apparent than in the field of photography itself, the very culprit of mechanical reproduction” This feels like a much bigger conversation which I think relates back to the simple but crucial othering of self through language and what that means for us from the moment it begins to take place in infancy. Crimp quotes Sherrie Levine talking about walking in on her parents having sex, and then feeling the need as a child to split herself in two, as her original self remained distant and impassive, watching. But this is what it is to be human as Crimp describes too – we are constantly having to invent and perform what is expected of us as we struggle to recall earlier versions, which may become subsumed and altered by memory in any case.  
  • There is some attention to the painting’s ‘hatred of photography’. Again, we witness the very human addiction to groupishness. We critters will do this in relation to absolutely anything. Returning to my initial bullet point here – that artists are often not really radical at all. They conform to the same human shapes and patterns of behaviour as anyone else. The petty arguments and exclusions and cliquiness so typical of our species in painting or photography or fragmented groups within are a microcosm of what is taking place all over the world all of the time. What irks about it taking place here is the critical and superior way in which art and artists of all persuasions comport themselves. This article feels as much about that aspect as it does about anything else. I’m not sure how relevant this is but it feels important today, as hate and derision dominate, as superiority complexes clash on social media and then spill into the offline world. I keep meaning to write about The Goodness Paradox (2019) by Richard Wrangham and as reread this article, I was reminded of it. The desire to be in a group, even if the group claims to be about rejecting the main group, is such a powerful instinct. Wrangham’s thesis suggests that the ability to gossip about others meant that we were able to divert attention from ourselves (save ourselves) and accuse others who would risk being executed. The best way to avoid this would be to fit in. If you stood out, you attracted attention and your chances of being excluded/executed increased. Language at once reduces our reactionary aggression by allowing for time and planning but increases our more calculating aggression which is pre-meditated. Our need to be accepted equates literally to the difference between life and death and drives co-operation. With this instinct deeply embedded in our genetic coding, the arguments which rage between painting and photography, or analogue and digital, RA trained or self-taught feel critical because it’s about survival. And the institution is gargantuan and seemingly impossible to stand up against. But civilisation is too far developed to do without so they are necessary and useful – but there is always a loss. Crimp acknowledges the struggle, but equates it here to space on the gallery walls – the life, and death of certain mediums or styles or trends. As digital technology brings in sweeping changes, what can seem like petty and daft arguments to outsiders (and some practitioners) becomes more understandable. And there is a big shift towards self-publication as it becomes more and more possible and affordable. What does this mean for the institution?
  • I will leave any comments about Sherman until I have been to her exhibition with the OCA.


Wrangham, R. 2019 The Goodness Paradox (Kindle Edition), Profile Books

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.