Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Arcade of the Aura: In Case of Future Break Glass

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. . . . [W]hich side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”  Walter Benjamin, 1936
Part One: Encountering the Aura

The great German culture critic Walter Benjamin warned us early on, perhaps too early for him to be fully believed, that our relentlessly elegant procession into the machine age was also leading us into a zone where representation replaces reality. His awkward prescience may also have been compounded by the fact that few people understood fully what he was talking about, since television was in its early stages and the computer, and of course the internet, had yet to be invented.

Photography and its nervous cousin the movies were the only talismanic augers he could have used to declare that the ritual aura associated with the historical transmission of our embodied meanings in varied art formats was in danger of eroding, decaying and disappearing entirely as a result of the eventual existence of copies without an original. Like most time-ghosts (the literal meaning of the word zeitgeist) he had his finger on the pulse of a throbbing wrist that he alone could witness and interview.

He warned us that we were plunging headlong into the long farewell of a kitsch conglomerate in which meaning was incorporated into automatic systems while its former embodiments were dis-incorporated phantoms shimmering under showers of imaginary gold. Nonetheless, he invented a future conceptually, which we currently occupy physically, psychically and psychologically and which I identify as cyber-kitsch: the perpetual present.

Likewise, twenty years after Benjamin, the great Canadian culture critic Marshall McLuhan warned us that we were in danger of entering an even more bright and shiny electronic realm where the medium itself, and its family tree of related media cousins and even outlaw bastards, were fast becoming not just distribution systems but actual content providers.

McLuhan’s warning involved the hypnotic and propagandistic powers of utterly passive (cool) participation in televised reality as opposed to active (hot) participation in the written and self-generated content of the printing press. His concept of the global village was clearly a vision of interrelated technologies that not only merge together to eliminate distance but also embark on a perilous blind date to extinguish time itself. His brilliant yellow caution sign involved a hint that we were quickly entering a field of cultural conduct where form can no longer be distinguished from content.

In that respect he was the ideal late modernist, applying the inherent qualities of any medium’s solipsistic self-examination outward to encompass the whole of the burgeoning global culture. My first provision to those who have heard and re-heard the specious term is to indicate, perhaps even to implore, that there is no such thing as the post-modern (though there obviously is something identifiable as the post-modern condition) but rather only late modernism, a stage where the modernist impulse was always intended to deconstruct itself in exactly the same manner it had deconstructed the classical and romantic historical periods before its own ascent in about 1848 and its uphill marathon race continuing until about 1968.

Marshall McLuhan in his study

Thusly, twenty years after McLuhan, the great French culture critic Guy Debord warned us that we had entered the domain he referred to as the society of the spectacle, where the theatrical show itself took over the stage and imposed its will on the audience. The former spectators who imagined that they were participants in a drama were now merely relegated to being consumers of the commodity of the ongoing performance, one in which they played no roles whatsoever apart from that of conspicuous consumption based on illusory production and the mere manufacturing of desire itself as a product. A perpetual appetite that can never be satisfied.

And twenty years after Debord, the (other) great French culture critic Jean Baudrillard launched yet another salvo upon our collective reasoning capacity, or its utter absence, when he warned us that reality had in fact been replaced by the Simulacra, a representation which hides from us the obvious fact that a behind-the-scenes reality does not in fact exist at all. Only the scenery and the stage exist, and only the theatre managers and the stagehands make any difference in the tragedy or comedy ensuing before their brittle metallic curtains. A perpetual trance was thus designed to distract our attention from the strutting attention merchants.

These last two gripping thinkers encountered just as much bewilderment from their social interlocutors as did Benjamin and McLuhan, maybe even more so due to their Gallic gall, but all four were engaged in a similar serious craft of mountain climbing. They sought and found the highest peaks of perception, from which they had the most exhilarating, if distressing, panoramic views of the abyss. And like their own precursor Uncle Freddy Nietzsche, they detected the utterly obvious fact that if they stared long enough into the abyss, then the abyss began to stare back at them, as it does at us all.

What do culture critics do, then? What is their job description unlike literary critics, or film critics, or art critics, or architecture critics, or music critics, or food critics, or fashion critics? Simple, really. Culture critics are, in fact, undertaking a special and unique kind of food and fashion critique, one in which we ourselves are the food on the menu, and our dreams and nightmares are the arrangements of mental clothing in which we choose to costume, to disguise, ourselves (perhaps in order to trick or evade the abyss).

Yet another explorer of contemporary mythology, yet another Gallic charmer, the illustrious Roland Barthes, should also be added to this Olympic tag team of arm wrestlers and shadow boxers: thinkers and writers of so visionary a stature that without them we would be utterly at sea and under the hypnotic sway of forces beyond our control. The fact that we are, even with their uniquely beautiful and poetic insights, still at sea, should not in any way diminish the debt we all owe them.

Since they all envisioned the very future which has subsequently become our disturbing present, we can only thank them properly by going back and reading more carefully the prescient warnings they issued, almost like emergency fire signals aimed right at us, but which we are all too busy waltzing with Moloch to notice, respond to or learn from. Therefore the other simple explanation of the job description of a culture critic (no different than a plumber or a taxi driver, really) is the following: we search for, find, identify, analyze, interpret, evaluate and judge patterns.

These patterns occur in every culture, slightly differently constituted but almost identical in the way they costume their embodied meanings, ideas and feelings which assume the most effective shape of whatever medium is most suited to capturing and communicating their substance. In other words: poems, novels, plays, dances, buildings, music, mathematics, paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, videos . . . whatever symbolic forms best transmit the human condition or experience from one person to another, from culture to another and from one moment in time to another.

Jean Baudrillard

My contention is that after Benjamin and McLuhan, art was altered forever, not just the art made chronologically after their earthy existence but also including all the art that was ever made prior to their lifetimes as well. Due to their insights into the aesthetic aura and its survival at the edge of what dear Benny called the expressionless, the psychic zone beyond which the art object cannot be formulated and where its truth content resides, and dear Marshall’s notion of the power of the medium over the message and its own projected primacy as pure consumption, we must interpret everything from cave wall art to computer graphic art in a dramatically new fashion.

This new fashion for grasping and appreciating art objects applies not only to paintings, photographs, films, sculptures and buildings but rather to all images of any and every kind. Thus the history of art becomes not only within the history of images per se, or of the varieties of visual experience and the ideas about those images, but also in the comprehensive history of aura, affect and agency in the history of those images and their interruption by the aura.

This requires us to urgently adapt to a whole new Iconosphere: something tangible and yet invisible that has evolved out of the geosphere, biosphere, and also what de Chardin called the noosphere. The Iconosphere is the final frontier, to borrow a phrase, at which all those earlier realms collide, intersect and mutate. It is also, of course, the circuitous territory of the manifestly powerful intellectual real estate which I’ve called cyber-kitsch.

This essay is designed to focus our attention on the work of art in the age of digital reproduction. It explores the fugitive nature of image making in the 21st century. The curated dream exhibition contains images, objects and texts, juxtaposed with “extinct” artifacts of nebulous function and meaning from the last century: the century of drastically accelerated change in which history itself appears to have commenced its own backward motion.

The invention that altered reality forever, ca 1455.
Shadow boxes, cabinets of curiosity, medieval reliquaries, conceptual boxes perhaps in the quaint spirit of fluxus, museum display cases, archival storage, miniature arcades: all are morphed together in our warehouse for storing the future. If there is to be one. Procedures for a well-timed ending: objects have a long memory. They often seem to contain within their bodies a recollection of everything they have mutely witnessed over time. Perhaps they even contain time itself, compressed into their silent yet significant grasp. Objects may be the ruins of frozen time.

Whether or not these arcades that house the aura are located in a physical site such as a gallery or museum, or whether they are represented in the pages of a long-lost catalogue pertaining to their wonders as mysterious and even mystical reliquary contents, is of little consequence from our perspective. Like poetry itself, there is more to all this than merely meets the eye. What counts is the mind that hides behind the eye.

Our dream arcade and its connected utopian catalogue is a celebration of the magic of the rapidly diminishing analogue domain: the handmade production of images and objects which for generations conveyed messages from the past to the present, from the present to the future. Our claim is that, in today’s digitally saturated realm of instantaneous images, nothing will be more uniquely prized than works of visual art executed by hand in paint, or handmade artifacts. But to acknowledge the intersection of two media of paramount significance for our global culture, we also want to declaim the astonishing effects on the art of painting caused by the French invention of photography, circa 1840.

The four hundred years of art preceding its invention would be technically outdistanced in a matter of decades, and would evolve both exponentially and abstractly, with painting itself being dramatically liberated to explore the interior world as well as that obvious exterior environment so perfectly captured in paint for centuries. Not even in the darkest dreams of Jan van Eyck or Hieronymus Bosch could the likes of a Picasso or Cézanne ever have been imagined.  Let alone the amazing visions of artists like Sergei Eisenstein, the maker of paintings that magically moved inside and through our collective minds in the dark via the visual music and optical poetry of montage.

How both of these media will be aesthetically impacted by the digital sciences, and why painted images will become among the most precious of luxury fetish commodities, is the ostensible subject being explored through any accumulation of paintings, objects and photographs and its attendant catalogue/book. How and when did the painted textile morph into the cinema screen, television screen and finally into the computer screen? What is coming next?

Clearly that next thing would be the virtual realm, along with its awkwardly clunky materiality as access point:  an almost tantric possibility, a veritable carnival of lost souls. My spine tingles at the prospect.

Both Benjamin and McLuhan, and, to a slightly different but maybe even deeper extent, both Debord and Baudrillard, have all already demonstrated to everyone willing to consider their fate just precisely how the machine colonized all of us when we weren’t looking. Baudrillard once waggishly remarked, Disneyland was designed to look like fantasy in order to make the rest of the world appear more real. The fact is, however, that the rest of the world is just as much an illusory projection of our will or lack of will as the theme park: it is, in fact, a theme park extraordinaire, spontaneously born during the romantic advertising campaign popularly known as the Renaissance.

Benjamin’s exotic form of journalism (chronicling not just current but future events, especially in his voluminous and nearly impenetrable Arcades Project) captured the past history of how we got to live so comfortably among our machines as well as the coming history of what those machines might be capable of doing, not just for us but to us. How we became their people and how they forever altered our hearts and minds, not always in a merely good or a bad way, but more often in a mysterious way, the outcome of which has still yet to be fully determined.

We live largely in the world he imagined, through his insightful and penetrating study of how what we communicate is controlled by how we communicate. If that sounds vaguely familiar it’s probably because that other visionary, McLuhan (1911-1980), managed to travel far and wide with the psychic passport that his earlier and considerably more obscure struggling elder made possible.

But rest assured: McLuhan’s own brilliantly entertaining passport was stamped on every single rumpled page with the mystical imprint of Benjamin’s brief 48-year presence on this complex and perplexing earth. The medium is the message is something that Benjamin might have said, if he had possessed the gift of someone like himself who had cleared the ground beforehand and created a context for his cogent observations about how history functions, how technology altered history, and how we have all been colonized by something as simple and useful as “the machine.”

Venus of Willendorf (date unknown) and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso (1907)

Instead, Benjamin attempted the Herculean and almost impossible task of clarifying his breathtakingly beautiful ideas in his massive 1000-page Arcades Project, which he was unable to complete during his short sad life and which wasn’t even translated into English until the very last year of the very century he so poetically captured in his research.

This frequently involved a kind of decanting process where the intellectual wine of a given subject is poured back and forth from one vessel to another in a clarifying procedure that removes all sediment. This is all well and good, except that it is precisely the sediment of Benjamin’s thinking which is so valuable and so influential upon the later vintages such as Marshall McLuhan, and beyond.

It also explains why Benjamin himself never thrived in the academic world (his thesis advisors couldn’t figure out what he was talking about and denied both his research and his degree) and why he never acquired the nice comfortable spot of a permanent university teaching position from which he could quietly explore both the past and the future.

Instead he was hounded into exile and died by his own hand in desperation trying to cross the illusory French border to freedom in 1940, the day before the frontier opened once again. His was without a doubt the worst luck imaginable.

What we need is a process whereby we can create a kind of distillation of that thinking, a kind of balsamic reduction of Benjamin for the purposes of easier access and enhanced pleasure. If you’ve heard of him at all, it is likely due to his exploration of something he called the aura of an artwork (or indeed, of anything) and how it undergoes decay as a result of mass reproduction.

Part Two: Embodying the Aura

There has been much debate as to whether the aura does in fact decay (I suspect that it undergoes transformations and mutations, but never decays) but few insights into just exactly what the aura is and was in the first place. We’ll all need to take a fresh look, especially in today’s digital world.

Benjamin and McLuhan were brothers in arms of a unique sort, separated in their work by a mere twenty years, thinkers who altered the landscape of our human sensorium in ways that are only now becoming apparent.

Such a delayed reaction is quite common in the world of ideas and images, where we often can’t see the forest for the trees, and perhaps it is especially common in the case of peripheral visionaries. Such people can see into the future, but only way off to the edges, so they are seldom accorded the attention they so richly deserve, since those edges are usually invisible to the average eye and, by the time the future arrives, those edges have become the obvious centre, and consequently they are just as invisible as they were before.

I am struck by an exemplary book, also deceptively modest in scale and with the added virtue of extreme brevity, written by W. Terrence Gordon about the complete and utter magnificence of McLuhan and his ideas. Entitled Everyman’s McLuhan (2007), it is a marvelous attempt to encapsulate something profoundly huge in importance within the scope of a brief but revealing glimpse into that greatness. The only thing missing in that little book is much mention of Benjamin, the figure who made it possible to approach the mechanized world with a clear head and a poetic sensibility. Alas, everyman’s McLuhan was nobody’s Benjamin.

As time goes by, the actual grandeur of Benjamin’s persona and his place in the cultural world will become more and more obvious as we slip and slide yet further into a domain that he characterized with both candor and grace: the domain of technics and its implications on our images and humanity. We have become the tools of the tools we got used to using. It’s too late to go back to an earlier age and make different decisions. But it’s about time we began to see the astonishing contributions that Benjamin made to McLuhan, and McLuhan made to all of us. The life of humanity in the age of its technological dominance is something too huge to ignore.

At the core of this transformation in consciousness itself is the impact which printing, reproduction, photography, films, television and computers have had on our perceptions of visual art, and, indeed, how reproducibility has completely altered our shared perceptions of the world we live in and perhaps even of reality itself.

Duchamp in disguise (left),Warhol in disguise (right)

Several artists can especially be examined and interpreted in light of Walter Benjamin’s insights and observations; however, there are two who tower above all others when it comes to the nature and degree of the innovative influence upon other artists and the visual culture at large: Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987).

It is my contention that these are the most important and influential artists in the 20th century, not necessarily because they are the best or most beautiful (though often they are) but because each of their unique bodies of work addresses most emphatically the implications of both Benjamin’s and McLuhan’s technological insights, albeit from drastically different angles, often mapping a route back to the mythical and ritual components of art which have been altered by our current role as technovores.

I will maintain that, far from decaying, the aura undergoes the same kind of essential structural transformation (mutation) that the concept of beauty underwent during the last century. This includes a taxonomy of images which can provide a continuum link between Vermeer and television, for instance, and a clear philosophical link between the image/media work of both Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan. In particular: the obvious parallels between the traditional physical Arcade and the cyberspace of the Internet.

If Charles Baudelaire was the first modernist subject (ca 1840), was Benjamin the last (ca 1940)? Is he the first post-modern subject, and what are the consequences of living in the future he imagined? How was Benjamin's interrupted work eventually completed by McLuhan, and how did discontinuous interruption itself become a hallmark of Benjamin's embodied dissonance and his prescient post-modern critique of cultures? A second but equally primary question is concerned with the intimate but invisible dialectical relationship between the aura, affect and agency in the history of images, and their new relationship within our current Iconosphere, where all emotional distance has apparently been abolished.

Inherently modernism was a negative dialectic which of necessity had to negate itself, the result being the late-mature deconstructive stage of modernism popularly misidentified as post, during our collective headlong rush into the Neo-Baroque realm we now occupy, or rather which occupies us. We have in fact been sublimely and silently colonized by the immersive and overwhelming qualities of the Neo-Baroque.

Baudelaire dreams Benjamin and Benjamin dreams McLuhan. But who or what does McLuhan dream? Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps? One of the things both Benjamin and McLuhan secretly revealed to us is that the electronic version of the Arcade has utterly erased any distinction between entrance and exit. We have all become global and digital flâneurs wandering alone together via reality television and social media. We are, in fact, as both Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Baudrillard’s Simulacra have so deftly demonstrated, merely characters in a movie. Perhaps we always were. Our collective task, before it’s too late, is to develop a method for designing and constructing a living archive of this movie, hopefully before the next intermission arrives.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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