15 Apr

The Aura of the Distributed Moment

Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Once Walter Benjamin’s thinking became the canonical portal between the worlds of what could be called post-Romantic modernism and postmodernism’s romance with the dual destiny of technology as both creative medium and aesthetic object, his position in theories of new media art seemed suddenly embraced in the most universalistic and unproblematic way possible. By and by, scholarship came to acknowledge that all of his major writings from 1919 to 1931[1] culminate in the essay from which I take the epigram above, one which has been read as a kind of Biblical ontology of electronic media in relation to artistic production. And by extension, this essay consequently locates Benjamin at the ubiquitous beginning of all major discussions of visual interpretation in the age, after his own, of electronic, not just mechanical, reproduction. How can one argue, for example, against the propitiating presence that accompanies the primal act of artmaking, a force that, in its archaic form, conjoined for Benjamin soul and work into the ontological singularity, the aesthetic event horizon, the nucleus of creativity’s very power of transformation signaled by and caught within the emanation of its aura?

One might imagine that Benjamin was, of course, not endorsing art in any universal sense; that he was, instead, ostensibly evoking the fearsome rise of its primal desecration by the incursion of machinery into what cannot be produced by and contained within it. In that sense alone, but sufficiently it seems, his most famous essay staked not so much a position on the role of technology than a logic, ultimately reducible to the axiomatic inequality that creative production is nullified by technical reproduction. I provide the adverb here, “ultimately”, in reference to Benjamin’s allegiance to Marxism and its teleology, pointing as it does, to that polemical time machine called social forces that churn conflict into transformation, coalescing like an alchemical solve et coagula on the way to its final post-historical cadence: an endless moment of fulfilled ideals, of purity of knowledge, and of utopian existence in a classless society.

Despite this eternal culmination, it is perhaps ironic that the post-historical reach of Marxist imagination that inspires Benjamin here relies on reasoning of a specifically temporal kind. The retrospective character of this logic, introduced in the second section of this 1935 essay, advances the most fraught assumption of the whole argument, namely, that the temporal separation between the creation of a work and the moment of its reception – not the advent or manner of its reproducibility – provides the principal basis for its aesthetic legitimacy, and conversely. Thus, works re-created (which is to say, created anew) in the present are ineligible for the status of true art – notice here how he subtly but intractably ties temporality to aesthetic legitimacy: “[e]ven 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. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” This past, therefore, is forever accommodated as indispensable constituent of the work’s aesthetic presence, of its arthood, so that the only logically admissible proxy for the contemporary existence of the work is through the Geist-like spirit addressed by its aura, the numinous moment of the work’s creation – although by this, Benjamin meant a special kind of creation in whose specific conditions production and reproduction are mutually exclusive. Whatever else can be read from this essay, the possibility of simultaneous creation and reproduction of art are not allowable to Benjamin, and so, new media scholarship, incorporating his thinking whole cloth, has unwittingly absorbed those very assumptions.

We could see how Benjamin would not wish to assert this enmity of creation and reproduction with bluntness. Rather, he would want to allow the argument to unfold gradually – gradually enough that it seems to turn on originality, not temporality. Thus he opens the second paragraph of that second section, with seeming consistency, by telling us that “[t]he presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity”. And this originality is not the ontologically unconditional originality that we might imagine as the initial moment of creation in every artistic work. Rather, as with elsewhere in Benjamin, it is a qualified and rather specific kind of originality that excludes any possible creation except by manual or organic means, so that “[t]he whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical – and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility”. Again, it is worth reminding ourselves that the machinery is not, in this historical argument, the cause of any de-legitimization of art, it is rather the temporal distance between creation to experience, so that when 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”, the aura of its creative moment is also left behind, separating the artistic essence from the audience’s sense, a supersensible creative effort from its reductive sensory reproduction.

Thus are production and reproduction portrayed in this most dialectical antithesis, the work of art, anchored in a singular time and place of creation, is torn from that past by processes that impart only its appearance, not its soul. And to accept this account of art in the contemporary moment of technology’s integration with all manner of social process is to read it not as an early critique of technologically mediated art but as its final epitaph. All art that undergoes reproduction, we are led to infer, loses the ineffable legitimacy that originality, which is to say, creation in a past moment of time, bestows. Unquestioned in this argument is the fact that art is not temporally contingent, only the art work may be. And so, in this lost distinction, Benjamin’s essay might have been correct on every account if by dint of a change of title we could more precisely accept the constraints that it claims, namely that two arguments – the fact of technological production and the principle of legitimacy in art are in postmodernity as together now as they appeared to be separate in his day, so that today, we might better speak of the work of art in the age of reproduction mechanisms, which is to say the work of algorithms.

And so what is the currency of reproduction in this age of art? When in the early 1970’s Alan Sondheim wrote of the pluralism of the art of that decade,[2] and when Dick Higgins wrote of the same regarding a decade earlier,[3] the foundation was laid for a moment in which aesthetic production would make evident its new, multitudinous route to the same outcome in a distributed work of art. Pluralism, from that time, has evolved into a profusion of media and practices resisting the labels that art criticism could make so apparent in previous chapters of its own history. Today, there is no prevalence of an abstract expressionism, a pop art, an op art, an agitprop, or a minimalism, there is rather the numerosity of methods and media, of departures from the idea of a single work born of a single moment out toward an expansive one involving compound art born in an emergent manner, in several ways, with multiple inputs and forces, in what might best be called a distributed moment.

These developments, while fascinating, have not surprised anyone who may have witnessed the displacement and evolution of singular narratives out to a range of media forms and practices in the last twenty years. This rise of the transmedia narrative, first broached in the context of popular culture’s wresting from the monolithic hand of the entertainment industry its most prized – that is, profitable – stories, is not only a new form of pluralism, it represents the moment on every level where production and reproduction, the unique and distributed, the momentary and the evolutionary, contribute equally in the power of the creative act that was for Benjamin located in mysterious and transcendental source, one that conflated the idea of art’s origins with the original in art.

And so it seems relevant to regard this distributed moment that is the transmedial voice in electronic art as a turning point from Benjamin, read, as I have said, for the most part with uncritical acceptance. To be sure, while the essay’s reception, as reverence, may be historically justified, my argument is with its relevance as a statement on the contemporary state of affairs connecting technical reproduction and the work of art. And so, the response I present to the aura is not one of either acceptance of it as it stood in 1935 or denial of it with dismissive apathy, but rather to take it elsewhere, using it to interrogate where the aesthetics of the transmedial work of art stands in relation to its possibility as a distributed moment, one not sourced in the mystical union of a single time and place, but rather one whose aura is pluralistically felt and realized.

This distribution, in the occasion of media technology’s own use in the service of diffusion and mobility, is one that the cell phone addresses. And correspondingly, this is the formulation that Golan Levin addresses with insistence on the varieties of engagement that each of his installations evokes. A case of this dispersal, simultaneous in time, derives from the live idea of a symphonic concert that Benjamin would have found utterly legitimate. In Dialtones, A Telesymphony[4] an audience gathers in a performance hall to enjoy the orchestration of musical instruments performing musically – no deviation in this arrangement from the normal conditions of a chamber work in a recital hall anywhere in the world. The absence of musical instruments, however, would rightly raise questions about what kind of performance one is in for, and, as Benjamin would have questioned, the origin or source from which the work presumably emanates. In fact, the site of performance lies partly in the audience, whose mobile phones were configured, prior to the performance, with specific ringtones, each subsequently able to play a component of the composition, so that in the simultaneous aggregate, any melody or harmonic chorus can be produced by the stage performers – now in their role as conductors. These stage conductors manipulate systems that dial the programmed phones in synchrony, orchestrating the work into life through a transmedial simultaneity that has many points of origin.[5]

Dialtones-1

Figure 1. Golan Levin, Dialtones, A Telesymphony, 2001.
Detail, pre-performance cell phone ringtone programming [“instruments tuning?”].

Dialtones-2

Figure 2. Golan Levin, Dialtones, A Telesymphony, 2001. Installation View. Image courtesy of the artist.

Since the distribution of the moment, a provocation that we might read in various ways, may reflect the multiplicity of activities in the service of a single work of art, it captures several permutations of the pluralism to which I referred earlier. In one form, as Levin’s work explored, the moment is temporally integrated with the artistic performance for whose genesis the coordinated participation of numerous media devices and persons must congregate. If the inverse variation is also feasible, Christian Nold’s series of Emotion Maps addresses it.[6] Deployed in several metropolitan centers, the work’s algorithm remains the same, while the realization is one of continual uniqueness. In the Paris Emotion Map, for example, Nold engages a group of residents who agree to wander the city’s 11th arrondissement. In this, participants wear a bio mapping system that continuously records emotional arousal, time, and geographical location in the city. At the conclusion of their peripatetic meandering, the wanderers annotate experiences associated with their most salient affective responses, and these become commemorated into a document, an existential palimpsest, where collective experience, distended over the period of several weeks, is unified into a narrative work whose authorship is the transmedial summation of media and moments.

Paris-3Figure 3. East Paris Emotion Map, 2008, Christian Nold. Poster

Nold-4Figure 4. East Paris Emotion Map, 2008, Christian Nold. Annotation detail.

But how far in spacetime would the transmedial moment – the poignant experience collectively felt but uniformly rendered through an array of media forms – extend? What is evident is that the extension and degrees of freedom of the transmedial moment exists in direct proportion to the complexity of the organizing algorithm. Can the immediacy of presence be sufficiently distended in time as to be indistinguishable from absence? More to the point, can a transmedial work of art speak with the future? The extension of present to those in other places is not a particularly difficult or rare phenomenon, and early examples of distributed media art were motivated by the principle of sustained dialogue as a function of spatial location. Stephen Wilson’s The Telepresent is one example. A small box designed from low grade materials, it was an early excursus into the then-novel notion of sending images from wherever it was throughout the Web, something that Steve Mann replicated in scores of provocative “broadcasts” of his real-time experiences in conversation – and sometimes disagreement – with people and places as he moved around urban space.

Wilson-5

Figure 5. The Telepresent, 1997, Stephen Wilson.
Box with radio electronics. Image courtesy of the artist.

In these cases, since the account produced by the work was transmitted to a dispersed audience, the aesthetic moment was spatially interspersed while simultaneously retaining its temporal immediacy as real-time portraiture. But in the same manner as the spatial can be extended, the temporal can as well, and speaking to posterity is the function of another kind of time machine. The minimalist aesthetic that frames Caleb Larsen’s box, facetiously titled A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter, is nothing if not a Benjaminian contradiction. For while the apparent physical solipsism of the black cube reflects a disdainfully selfish resistance against interaction to any present visitor, user, or owner of the work, it is perhaps because inside the box sits an Arduino chipset programmed to do something approaching what any gallery curator could dream for: art that sells itself.[7] With its persistent internet connection – one wire is all that can be seen to emanate from the cube – the nondescript Plexiglas box pings a server to decide whether the work is to be put up for sale, and if so, its embedded system launches and manages an auction of itself on eBay. Clearly, in this turn on conceptual transmediality, its physical presence – static, silent, monochromatic, and symmetrically without narrative – is the most trivial element of the work. Looking exactly like so many plastic cubes, the work’s material objecthood in fact points to the least present dimension of  its being. Operating exclusively in the vitreous spaces of the Web, the work’s dialogue is precisely with everyone who does not possess it, so that the triad of its ultimate presence, meaning, and value are determined only through the algorithm’s prolonged zeal for the transmedial indexicality signaled by its out of body experiences.

Larsen-6Figure 6. Caleb Larsen, A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter, 2009. Perpetual online auction, internet connection, custom programming and hardware, acrylic cube. Image courtesy of the artist.

Larsen-7
Figure 7. Caleb Larsen, A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter, 2009.
Online auction status.

Responding to the undignifying and indecorous commoditization of art, Larsen’s work embodies more than an ironic riff on the idea of art collecting as wealth building; it is a conceptual move whereby an aesthetic rationale for the work’s own exchange value becomes its only function. In this compression, its aesthetic manifestation is now indistinguishable from its need for conveying that function through the act of reproduction, given that it must interminably represent itself to an indeterminate external world as, by seeking its highest resale price, it does what has never been done before: the artwork chooses its owner, rather than vice versa. And it is this irreducibility’s antiphony to Benjamin’s sense of the “actual” work of art that marks the final point of incommensurability between two worlds of art – the modern and what has come after – from which we must henceforth look back, I think, sensing the precipice of an irreconcilable turn. That is, since Benjamin’s line in the sand asserts that “[t]he situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.”, we see how his guiding conception – the regulative principle dissociating this “actual” moment of the original work from its reproduction – is not merely inimical to the transmedial, simultaneous, distributed moment of this kind of art, but that for Benjamin it detracts from what is most fundamental to the work: its presence. And this presence is not merely one of interaction, but also of transfer – both determined by the algorithm, since the contractual obligations of each owner stipulate that Larsen’s work must be given to the next winning bidder, who continues its provenance.

Two examples, one from the world of live performance and another from that of documentary film, and an overly brief and structural view of an electronic medium — the computer game — should round out this discussion of the transmedial in the sense that I am intending, namely as an extension of its original concept of narrative distributed through media forms that can best express its episodic nature in components, with no single medium possessing the entire tale. As is perhaps by now persistently obvious, the specific dialect of the notion that I am putting forward relates to the distribution less of narrative, as in a fable or known story of the sort we know in commercial form – from Mario Brothers to Star Wars – than of the experiential salience of shared meaning. The story collectively produced in these examples, therefore, is never a wholly fictive one; it is rather one that recruits significant elements of the contemporary voice that an audience brings, and as such, has only one aspect of preconception that we might call ‘story’, that which is its structure. The work as story and distributed moment appears less as the franchise of the corporate story-product than as a mirror of action whose audience participates in an aesthetic contract by co-opting the work’s own structure and speaking back to it. And because of this, the notion of an audience is itself constructed by the transmedial work of art. And by construction, I point specifically to that component of the work that directs it, acting as the moral imperative of the work – as it has always been in social history in any case – the normative principle that is the algorithm, as William Uricchio has made evident on numerous occasions.

That the algorithm serves at the core of the transmedial work of art is demonstrated in the example of Texterritory,[8] a work that fuses nonlinear story, partially deterministic and partially aleatory, requiring the audience as a pluralistic collective  to direct the actions of a Hamlet-like stage character, immersed – not to say, paralyzed – as she is in confronting several moral dilemmas. Disguising its radically transmedial nature through the approachability of lighthearted romantic comedy, the stage protagonist, “Grace Campbell”, is a legal secretary whose anxious insecurities become nearly insurmountable as she awaits the visit of a long-anticipated romantic suitor. The work’s title alludes to the sketchy way in which the two had met – in a dark club several weeks before – and without an intervening opportunity for personal time together, the territory of the acquaintance, such as it is, has been explored through the margins of text messages – “texting out their territory”. But the fictional premise of the work – text messaging between Grace and her friend – is realized in an extradiegetic way by the audience itself, which is prompted to vote on the each successive course of action that comprises the play.

Wray-8Figure 8. Sheron Wray and Fleeta Siegel, Texterritory v.2.3, 2008. Event announcement, London.

The distributed moment is less the simple one where the collective determines the next move for the lone fictive character of the work, but rather it is one where the timing of action is ever the dependent variable, the partnership in collaboration on actions – sometimes clearly taken by the character, while at others, directed by the audience – is a reflection of the work which relies solely on a kind of reproduction of signal in order to produce its aura, and by so doing, becomes rhapsodic.

Wray-9Figure 9. Sheron Wray and Fleeta Siegel, Texterritory v.2.3, 2008. Performance view.

Wray-10Figure 10. , Sheron Wray and Fleeta Siegel, Texterritory v.2.32008. Algorithm of the work.

The logic of transmedia’s distributed moment is not so alien to another form around which I suppose I’ve been circling here – the computer game. To be sure, sufficiently has been written on how the structure of game dynamics depends on a distributed temporality, which is the only way to reconcile the opposing views of many narratologists, who find that any predetermined narrative structure in a game is a nontrivial constituent of the larger narrative tradition that print epitomizes versus the view of the ludologists, who find in the freedom between predetermined waypoints in an interactive story precisely the evidence of non-narrative, perhaps aligning with an aesthetic akin to the second law of thermodynamics, except that in place of the entropy that physical science sees as accreting in an isolated system in disequilibrium, the ludological enterprise finds increased indeterminacy and variety the more one plays the same game.  Stephen Dinehart’s model of user experience paths, for example, clearly illustrates the oscillation between static moments separated by periods of free interaction within the game environment. Corresponding to their distinct natures, Dinehart terms these two primary spaces the cinematic sequences – namely “choke points .. that all playes must pass through in order to advance” (73) versus the gameplay space which is less determined by specific behavior.

Dinehart-11Figure 11. Viewer/User/Player Experience paths (Dinehart, 2009)

If this map precisely explains the structure of Texterritory v.2.3, which is decidedly not in the medium of the computer game, it is because Dinehart’s diagram operates meta-algorithmically, as something that visualizes not only the electronic game logic that every player finds instinctively familiar but also one that indicates precisely the macro level anatomy of the larger enfoldment of transmedial activity, that being that a story, as is universally understood, is never wholly located or comprised within a single work, device or expressive form, but rather distributes itself through a culturally variegated range of specific media and expressive practices. Its structural oscillation, as mirrored in the diagrammatic argument that Dinehart presents, reflects the brittleness or fluidity of each medium or form of agency through which the work navigates. And while it might be feasible to read in this diagram something that argues the essence, as it were, of transmediality as a creative principle, that inference alone would be fallacious, or at least deficient. To be sure, the duality evident between here the predetermined and the freeform seems compelling on several levels: we see, after all, an inspiring continuum between tyranny and freedom, or more to the point, the dialectic that confronts innovative thinking when creative latitude must negotiate structural constraints. And we cannot deny that this is precisely the measure of artistic success in other creative genres; in musical composition, for example, Bach’s melodic perfection in the highly restrictive fugue form, in his canons, and two- and three-part inventions, cannot be summarized except in those very terms.  But the fugue is only partly determined by its structure, and by structure I mean what there is, what we can see or hear. Rather, the musical work is determined by something prior to what there is, for prior to any structure is the rule set that determines the range of its final possibilities, however distinct each instance of the form might be from another. And this rule set, which is much harder to express with the visual conciseness of Dinehart’s diagram, is the algorithm itself.

If it seems that the compression in time between the moment of original creation and that of reception has today not detracted from the legitimacy of the work of art, I do not want to conclude by implying that this post-Benjamin situation is due strictly to digital technology. My argument about the new work of art’s collective aura is not meant to suggest a reliance state of the art in any form. The artwork’s new condition, moving from a moment of originality that was seen as the aura out to a distributed moment, is determined by the structure of the work of art – that is, its underlying algorithm, returning to William Uricchio’s thinking here – not because the work exists before the algorithm, but because the algorithm exists before the work. The procedural, not the structual or medium-specific, has become the ontological foundation of the aesthetic, through a new orchestral nature and function. Thus can we see in the works I have discussed both a dispersal and a unification of time and space, of creation and reception, of event and of place. And as fits the necessarily pluralistic treatment of place, I think of one final example entirely outside the realm of digital technology.

Place, as the site for the transmedial expression of algorithm of meaning, brings to mind, particularly in connection to a city as rich as Berlin, Richard Kostelanetz’s film, A Berlin Lost. Actually a set of films around a single story — making it imprecise to imagine one specific core in the story — Kostelanetz produced the six films that bear the same name, each visually the same but each also recorded in a different language and with different narratives. In each work, we are taken through Weissensee, the Great Jewish Cemetery of Berlin, where much of what we are shown no longer exists. The medium of the film’s text, if we could speak metaphorically of anything like a script, comes to us through the visual construal of placemarkers, including the gravestones that Kostelanetz’s eye seems less to visit than to probe. Their inscriptions reflect connections through time and place that weave the fabric of Berlin’s story as a cultural reserve, albeit not through images alone. For each of the six versions of A Berlin Lost, while visually identical, comprises entirely different soundtracks in English, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, and Hebrew; each comprising a distinct procession of ex-Berliners reflecting, in their own tongue and given to us without subtitles, on the time passages that accompanied life in the city’s great period, the eight decades prior to 1940. This makes, I think, amply evident how transmedial narrative, in questioning the form of its own appearance, constructs and frames a dispatch but reclaims the possibility of its truth by separating what constitutes it from any single medium by its link to and emergence from its kinship to an algorithmic order that completes the aura’s distributed moment.

Cambridge, April 2010


[1] In the roughly ten-year trajectory that includes The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism, Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities’, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Little History of Photography, and most importantly Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, we can read the decade preceding The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as a foundation period for Benjamin’s aesthetic philosophy, honing a criticism firmly committed to the idea of some unitary truth in the work of art.

[2] Alan Sondheim, ed., Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977).

[3] Dick Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia,” in Dé-Coll/Age (Décollage) * 6, ed. Wolf Vostell (Frankfurt/New York: Typos Verlag/Something Else Press, 1967).

[4] Golan Levin, Dialtones, a Telesymphony (Linz: http://flong.com/projects/telesymphony/, 2001).

[5] It might be clear that the term I have been employing as thematic descriptor, as when speaking of transmedial experience, is not exactly the one that has been used in initial documents regarding this phenomenon (as in “transmedia storytelling”). The philological change implies a modal variation that reads the original idea in a specifically aesthetic direction, staying with the formalism of distributed narrative which it documents without following the implications for consumer-oriented commercial media. Thus a transmedial reading regards the first of the following two sentences as more conceptually fertile than the second: “In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best-so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics, and its world might be explored and experienced through game play. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained enough to enable autonomous consumption.”Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling: Moving Characters from Books to Films to Video Games Can Make Them Stronger and More Compelling.,” Technology Review January 15, 2003.

[6] Christian Nold, East Paris Emotion Map (Paris: http://www.paris.emotionmap.net/info.htm, 2008).

[7] For updates on the box’s autonomous auction price, see http://atooltodeceiveandslaughter.com/.

[8] Cf. http://textterritory.com.

Bibliography

Higgins, Dick. “Statement on Intermedia.” In Dé-Coll/Age (Décollage) * 6, edited by Wolf Vostell. Frankfurt/New York: Typos Verlag/Something Else Press, 1967.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling: Moving Characters from Books to Films to Video Games Can Make Them Stronger and More Compelling.” Technology Review January 15, 2003.

Levin, Golan. Dialtones, a Telesymphony. Linz: http://flong.com/projects/telesymphony/, 2001.

Nold, Christian. East Paris Emotion Map. Paris: http://www.paris.emotionmap.net/info.htm, 2008.

Sondheim, Alan, ed. Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977.