The Work of Art in the Digital Domain

17 July 1992 Written by   Published in Technology


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Neither a philosopher, critic nor scholar, somehow Waiter Benjamin (born 15 July 1892) succeeded in being all three at once.His friend Bertolt Brecht called his suicide in 1940

German literature's first great Nazi casualty. Like Brecht, Benjamin was a Marxist, but his writing emerges refreshingly free from dogma. Of all his works, the essay "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" (1936) has been the most influential and prescient


1. It has entered our lives by stealth. Should Walter Benjamin pop over to your house to celebrate his 100th birthday, you might have difficulty furnishing him with an example of new digital technology. Perhaps you’d point to a video recorder or CD player.  He wouldn’t find them totally unfamiliar. In form and function, they seem a natural extension of a 1930s film reel or record collection.  More compressed, more attuned, more complex perhaps; but mechanical reproduction all the same.

Under closer scrutiny, however, digital technology is not just more of the same. From photography to sound sampling, book publishing to video editing, fed down phone lines or bounced off satellite dishes, the digital domain translates sound, picture and text into the same binary code. It signals a new kind of production, as well as reproduction.

2. Back in 1936, Benjamin’s essay sketched out a critique of the emerging mass media. Today, multimedia is used to describe the results of digitalisation. Because aural, visual and textual images now can share the same format, different systems can intercommunicate. Moreover, because the information has been encoded, it can be interpreted in new and surprising ways.

An example of this was the release last month of the entire 22 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary on one CD.

Not only is this a remarkable feat of compression: you no longer have to scan the dictionary, serially, by alphabetical head­ word alone. In a few seconds, a standard desktop computer can submit the data to all manner of searches-by date, name, quotation, etymological origin- that would have taken a researcher years of work.

 Interactivity is the key development. A glimpse of what this means was given by the launch of Philips CDI, or Interactive Television, earlier this year.  Looking like a CD player, it sits under the TV like a video recorder. In fact, CDI is a powerful microcomputer that can grab and manipulate photographs or sound samples, recolour a cartoon, or play one of the projected (but as yet unrealised) interactive films.

3. However, multimedia does not herald a new era. It is best described as a domain. Everything about it confounds the linear concepts of eras, epochs and revolutions.

The format of a CD, for example, unlike vinyl, allows you to skip between tracks, scan forward and back through different sectors. In a similar fashion, digital   technology spreads evenly through our lives, sporadically, by incremental shifts.  Already, the microchips in an average household television set could talk to the cooker, the sound system, or control the heating. But that does not mean that your home will be run by a massive brain, like Hal the computer who runs amok in Kubrick's film 2001.

The idea of Hal erroneously projects information technology through the prism of an old economic structure. As the growth of personal computers over the past decade has proved, the industry itself proceeds through wider dispersion rather than agglomeration. Its standard model is not the central brain or robot, but the loose, open architecture of the network.

4. Unlike most of the critics and philosophers of his day, Benjamin refused to revile mass production, and' looked for its liberating democratic potential. To him, the new media eroded the possessive  fetishism of the art object, and made the work of art, its human significance,  more accessible.

The avatars of multimedia would be quick to claim Walter Benjamin for their side. They argue that the digital domain will break the monopolistic stranglehold of the mass media, which separates consumer from producer and makes viewers into passive receivers. Interactivity, they say, reverses the circuit. It requires its audience to participate in choices and makes every receiver poten­tially a transmitter.

5. But Benjamin would also be met by other siren voices. Many of his professed disciples (Hans Magnus Enzensberger, John Berger, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard) saw the new technology as an extension of the screen, the spectacle, the simulacra:  a further step in the industrialisation of the mind.

Only a fool would accept a fax of a cheque, but multimedia poses similar dilemmas of value and authenticity. Old, mechanically reproduced images at least bear some trace impression of their original. One trusted the token value of a photo of Dietrich or a recording of Gigli, rather as one believed a paper bank note was equivalent to a pound of sterling silver.

The digital image's relation to its original is more like that of a credit card to precious metal: that is, virtually untenable. We have become accustomed to the fact that a new record release no longer reproduces a musician's performance so much as a producer's mix in a multitrack studio. But if we apply the same acceptance to photography? Digital cameras are already on the market, and most news photos are now processed through computer software before publication, where they can be manipulated, figures "air brushed" out, filtered, treated.

The prospect might have disturbed Benjamin. The digital domain seems to yield only images of images. It seems to take us a further remove from reality: deceiving shadows dancing on the walls of our crystal caves.

6. The point is, however, that the camera never told the truth. It lied by framing, crop­ ping, choice of caption, by sins of commission or omission. There is no point mourning the decline of the apparent scientific objectivity of the old media. As facts, they were highly factitious.

With the virtue of hindsight, Benjamin would see that mass production did not dispel the bogus religiosity of the work of art. It just replaced the aura of the object with a secondary glamour of the image. Throughout my childhood, film and pop stars attained a god-like status. To see a TV personality in the flesh was as miraculous as meeting an angel.

My two-year-old son, by contrast (thanks to his grandparents' digital camcorder) has al­ready seen himself on TV many times. Per­ haps multimedia may yet help to demystify our culture. I doubt the medium will have the hold on his generation it did on mine.

More dramatic still have been the changes in publishing.  Not long ago, the honour of being typeset, of "seeing your name in print", conferred real authority. Today, with the relative accessibility of desktop publishing, anyone can produce near typecast quality. If he could look over my shoulder as I write this on my PC now, Benjamin might not be so worried after all.

7. Clearly, the digital domain represents an important new form of production. But what about the other half of the title? Can multi­ media really create their own unique works of art?

8. No, they can't! Multimedia is merely the convergence of existing art forms. The digital domain can only reprocess the products of other genres-publishing, music, film - and reissue them at greater cost.         

9. Yes, they can! These new art forms may be stirring already in software publishing, in computer games or virtual reality. As Benjamin noted elsewhere, most new art forms develop, unrecognised, on the unofficial margins of culture.

10. According to Niko Paape, a Dutch interactive designer, the new forms will be almost unrecognisable anyway. For the first time, artworks will be actively created by the spectator (within parameters set by the artist). An interactive picture, for example, may change colour or composition, depending on what clothes the spectator wears, how loud he or she talks.

Clearly this takes the notion that "all art is collaboration" through an unexpected twist If the spectator creates the artwork, who owns the copyright? Such problems of authorship are, of course, only the obsession of an acquisitive individualist culture.

11. Yet why should the new art forms be so radical and progressive? Personal computing promised us a paperless office, but actually increased the amount of paper printed.  Paradoxically, given the constant fears about decline of reading (and rise of a three-minute, imagistic culture), multimedia may permit the secret revenge of literacy.

To Benjamin, the great achievement of the era of mechanical reproduction was film, a popular art that spoke in a new demotic language to the masses gathered in the cities.

Compare the gregariousness of the cinema with the solitude of a VDU or interactive TV, and multimedia can seem like a step back­ wards. A brief look at the metaphors of the dominant software packages- windows, rooms, desktops- suggests romantic dreaminess and solipsism.

The irony is that digital technology, with its hieroglyphics and clerkist conditions, is overwhelmingly writerly.

12. Yet the digital image has one great flaw, which casts a shadow over its artistic potential. In the first years of the compact disc, many people complained that the aural quality was too bright, almost empty. Even today, I rather like my old vinyl Gigli recording, complete with scratches, pops and hisses. It reminds me that this Italian tenor is singing across great gulfs of years, from the other side of the grave.

Celluloid film - particularly black and white - has the same memorial quality. When you see Casablanca now, you feel nostalgic for those absent faces, that vanished world. Indeed, the elegiac quality of "As Time Goes By' 'was apparent on the day of the film's release. Film, with its shadowy ghostly imagery, closely mimics the tricks of memory. Video tape, by contrast, makes no accommodation with our perception of time. When an episode of Morecambe and Wise is repeated there is something almost obscene about the fact that Eric seems so bright and alive, or that Glenda Jackson looks so young. No matter how vivid the image, it seems to flicker with unreality.

The banal glare of video recordings leads people to assume they are of poorer quality than film. But the opposite is true.  Video images are technically perfect. As with most digital forms, errors and distortions would destroy the signal entirely. By virtue of their obsessive perfection, digital images remove the need for imaginative engagement, and deny the central human experience of mortality.

13.  Meanwhile, the digital domain marches on. It has been estimated that some 40 per cent of the US economy is now geared to the "soft" production of information and entertainment. At this rate, the old Marxist distinction   between   base and superstruc­ture, means of production and culture, will fall apart.  Ideas and images are becoming the mainstay of the post-industrial economy. What would Benjamin make of this inversion? His resounding exhortation at the conclusion of 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" was not to aestheticise politics, but to politicise aesthetics.

But hasn't this been largely achieved? Semiotically trained image-consultants advise politicians and   corporations. Foucault's dictum "Knowledge is Power" is stencilled on delegates' badges at hairdressing conferences.

14. Yet some of the key ideas Benjamin gleaned from Marx may not be entirely obsolete. In the digital domain, the victors are those who can extract significance from the flood of data. To rephrase a famous line from the Communist Manifesto:  the struggle of existing society is the struggle of the classes to become historical (i.e. significant). For the unrepresented and unheard, the constant threat is that they will be drowned out by a rising tide of banality.

Truly politicised aesthetics, in the digital domain, will not be a question of bland slogans and political correctness. It will be a struggle, fought with wit, passion, surprise and guile, to grasp deep meanings without being obscure, to create accessible but captivating images. It will be the labour that Waiter Benjamin embodied in his work, to make, against all odds, a difference.

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