The Seam: Places of reproduction in contemporary art
In 1936 Walter Benjamin published an article titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that posed what have been durable questions about the effect of new reproductive technologies on our perceptions of art and life. He wondered specifically about what would happen when the original object was nonexistent or unimportant and how the loss of what he called the “aura” of the original would impact our ideas of value. Benjamin suggested that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. Benjamin’s article was written years before the advent of television and the Internet. In fact, he was noting the impact of film and photography, and could not have known how swiftly and easily the general public would come to accept the mechanically reproduced image and object as natural rather than new. As is often the case with theories of art and culture, Benjamin’s questions about the effects of reproductive mechanisms have been answered by a public that likely did not know the concerns had ever been voiced, interacting daily with advanced technologies. We live in a world where complex images and sounds are relayed in real time, where nearly any product can be ordered from virtual stores located somewhere on a world-wide electronic web, and where spaces conceived in the computer and impossible to physically construct are “magically” produced by lasers cutting resin. We are conscious of the implications of real time reproduced on the radio and television, developing shows that play intentionally with our perception of reality and fiction. We have blockbuster films suggesting that war, like anything else, can be fabricated. And, dissatisfied with the problems of real time, like having to go to the bathroom or craving a snack while something important is happening, we have televisions that allow us to pause events so that they may more readily fit our “real” needs. As a culture we have digested the ripples in the fabric of time and space created by new technologies, barely taking notice of the seemingly infinite transmission of objects and ideas produced in unknown places and fed en masse through invisible lines.
Each of the artists in “Re-production” is a product of the world Benjamin wondered about, having been exposed to and intellectually expanded by the vast resources and mass media that are a part of the American landscape. At the same time, they collectively elaborate a shift in the way that some object- and image-makers are putting reproductive technologies to use. Benjamin and other theorists of mechanical reproduction spoke primarily about the effects of disseminating copies of an original out into the public sphere. The work in “Re-production,” while designed to conspire with different surroundings, utilizes the repeated image or object predominantly as a unit of construction. The artists represented use the copy machine, the computer, casting, stamping, vacu-forming, and other reproductive techniques as a starting point, creating the parts that are then used to build other forms.
These artists sabotage technology’s usefulness as a mass distributor of information, turning it back on itself to see what happens when all the stuff that was meant to move out instead builds up. The multiple becomes both an element of aesthetic design and a site for discussing manufacture, product, cloning, and accumulation. Reversing the emphasis on the multiple as a unit for dissemination, and instead concentrating on its physical presence and possibility, the work in “Re-production” mirrors its creators’ ambiguous relationship to contemporary methods of production and distribution. At times the work emphasizes the beauty in the pigment of the color copier, the translucency of plastics, or the precision of a machine-cut line. But in the excess of infinite mechanical reproduction (consider a casino or Mardi Gras) the beautiful loses its luster, casting a less pleasant glow. By working with the technologies that inform mass culture, the artists represented in
“Re-production” raise some interesting questions of their own concerning the nature of use and value in this Information Age.
Plastic, Electric, ...
Using reproduced objects as elements of construction, or parts that build to a whole, the work in “Re-production” exposes a kind of implicit mutability. In fact, biological language (focusing on cell duplication and mutation) functions well in considering where this work differs from past definitions of “fine art.” The ability to generate infinite reproductions allows the artists to envision their work in a variety of states of momentary completion. The work grows by adding more parts and is reduced by taking parts away, becoming a more or less complex “organism.” The possibilities inherent in the use of the multiple also seem closely linked to an architectural model. When one begins to make work built of repeated units one’s thinking naturally becomes more spatial. Like pallets of bricks or boxes of tile, a “plurality of copies” releases objects from the value attached to an “original,” freeing one to wonder about the vast array of forms that might develop from the building block. Also, like bricks, tiles, panes of glass, and other units of construction, the singular parts created from mechanical reproduction embody the requirements of manufacture. The very real conditions inherent in outputting reproduced objects and images (the size of printers, the pouring of stuff into molds, the releasing of things from molds, the amount that a sheet of plastic will stretch before ripping, or bend before melting) influence both the scale and the structure of the things that populate our environment. The simplified forms, smooth surfaces, rounded corners, and gridded formats in “Re-production,” mimicking the aesthetic qualities of Modernism, result from similar concerns with how to easily mass-produce unique objects. Exemplifying the claim made by Benjamin in 1936 that “to an ever greater degree, the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility”
By challenging the notion that a work of art has a singular, complete presence, the pieces represented in “Re-production” also challenge where we locate meaning in art. The work does not present itself at once, but reveals subtle nuances dependent upon the proximity of the viewer, repeated exposure, and time of day. Meaning slowly accumulates through the interaction amongst the unit, with its repeated similarities and unfolding differences, the construction of a larger form, and the way that form engages its environment. This inter-relational approach to interpretation is similar to the way that
“the knock”2 has been used to describe the theorist Roman Jakobson’s articulation of repetition developing into recognition. 3 The deconstruction of “the knock” might be read as a lingering change of awareness. One loud noise could be anything? a gunshot, a bird hitting the window, the wind? a second sound similar to the first bang would likely cause us to pay attention? why are there multiple gunshots? why doesn’t that bird figure out the concept of glass? could the wind hit the same thing in the same way twice? The third sound creates a kind of conscious intervention? it would not be natural for the same sound to happen three times in a particular rhythm? the three bangs are mentally combined and named as a single thing, a “knock,” which leads to a reinterpretation of the individual sounds that came before in the sequence.
Similarly, the work in “Re-production” moves back and forth between recognition of the whole (the grid as sky in Tao Urban’s work and the system of display for Beverly Fishman, Joey Slaughter’s spreading biomorphic forms, or Samantha Fields’ spiders and flowers) and the parts used to construct the whole (Urban’s vacu-formed panels and cast lamps, Fishman’s cast-resin pills or her and Slaughter’s cut-vinyl pieces, and Fields’ color-copies further manipulated by cutting and pasting. The modular object helps to determine the scale and shape of the broader form. The form, on the other hand, asks us to reflect on the properties of the unit. What happens when pills change size and are used as marks? When flowers are built of stuff so unnatural? When vacu-formed, three-dimensional, plastic “clouds” shift scale to fit the perspective of flat space?
It could be argued that the way the multiple is used in “Re-production” reflects a fairly pivotal shift from the dominant view of fine art as something which comes complete and which one makes space for. Instead these artists create images and objects that, in Benjamin’s words, “meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation,” or, better put in another passage from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” Music, here, is a useful analogy. While generally produced from a single site, sound is able to fill space “flowing through doorways and windows and reverberating off ceilings and walls” its quality dependent on the surroundings. The pieces in “Re-production” are able to be put together in different ways to meet both the conditions of the architecture and the desires of the beholder. Because the work comes in pieces it can multiply, bend, expand, extend, and mutate to rest on or move through and around things in the existing environment. Furthermore the person displaying the work has more control over the way that she or he would choose to “meet” the art. Since the work is able to be broken down into smaller parts it can be physically manipulated to fit the demands of different spaces. Placed in a position more akin to selecting wallpaper or light fixtures at a hardware store that choosing a proper work of art, collectors can pick numbers of pieces and choose how they relate both to each other and the surroundings, allowing them to become collaborators rather than passive witnesses.
So, while the artists in “Re-production” have learned from the installation art of the twentieth century (from Marcel Duchamp’s wrapping of string around the museum, to Sarah Sze’s structures built of domestic items or Jason Rhodes’ chaotic collections) the pieces in “Re-production” relate better to the private, lived-in territory of the home than to more public venues of display. Much of the work does not fit into a conventional business day. Some pieces are lit from inside, or glow after dark, or use material that reflects existing light. And while every object changes under different environments, many of the artists in “Re-production” develop pieces with the intention that they shift both physically and conceptually due to time of day, the presence of people, electricity, or other factors. These considerations, along with the reproductive techniques that make it possible for the work to build in different ways out of the same unit, align the pieces in “Re-production” more closely with the considerations of graphic, product, or interior design and architecture than with traditional ideas of how we should respond to the work of art.
Completed . . .
Both Benjamin and Jakobson address different states of attention in considering our response to repetition. Benjamin speaks of the “distracted” way that we “absorb” film and other cultural products in opposition to the focus necessary to understand a work of art with a capital “A.” Jakobson describes a transition from passivity to awareness. The concept of attention seems appropriate to contemporary distinctions between the “fine arts” (something that you focus on) and “design” (something that focuses on you).
The artists in “Re-production” straddle the cultural distinctions between art and design by creating work that is able to respond to its surroundings. By using reproduced parts they search for meaning through “plurality,” and in working from an organic model of multiplying and building they enable objects to collaborate with conditions of site rather than demand our attention.
The varying intentions of the artists represented in "Re-production" are revealed as much in the delicate seams and scars created by production as on the surfaces that we first notice. Those places (where flat images overlap to create an impression of what is below, where plastic wrinkles or gently curves because of the strain of forming, or where a ridge reveals how a mold was made to release the object inside) articulate the decisions made by the maker and give a view into the logic and limitations of mass reproduction.
Flaws created by human intervention expose the material requirements of technologies and the subtle effect that these requirements have on our perception. This exposure provides a place to meditate on the ways that production has impacted our ideas of authenticity, the natural and unnatural, function, dysfunction, and overabundance.
Searching for the seam between fine art and design, the artists in "Re-production" attempt to explore both the extraordinary potential of production as well as the possible confines it places on what we are able to imagine. Their personal investigations reveal where gravity, mass, and the capabilities of machines collide with the minds of their makers.