Digital Relics and ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’

At the centre of Walter Benjamin’s argument in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ is the following thesis: ‘[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’.1 The artwork that Benjamin describes here is an object. Prior to the advent of digital technology, a work of visual art was of necessity an object. An object is here defined as that which occupies a specific temporal and spatial location: one that is not simultaneously occupied by any other material. Moreover, an object is complete: if something’s component parts are spread over a series of spatial locations, then that thing cannot be said to exist as an object. Rather, those separate and distinct parts constitute a number of different objects, and will remain as such until reassembled into a single entity. As objects, all artworks were subject to a ‘history’, to deterioration in ‘physical condition’ and ‘various changes in ownership’ (‘Work of Art’ 1097). It is these that testify to an artwork’s authenticity, and it is this authenticity that grants a work its ‘authority’, its status as a unique object: that which Benjamin refers to as a work’s ‘aura’ (‘Work of Art’ 1097-8). In other words, for Benjamin the work of art is always a relic. It exists as a trace; it speaks of something other than its own presence, because by its very presence as an object it implies that history to which it has been subjected. Roy Ascott suggests that digital technology has brought about a conceptual shift regarding the nature of the artwork itself: ‘[a]rt does not reside in the object alone […] Art is all process, all system’.2 In the course of this article I will use Benjamin’s seminal essay in a reassessment of the artwork as relic in the age of digital technology, for, as Slavoj Žižek suggests, ‘The only way to grasp the true novelty of the New is to analyse the world through the lenses of what was “eternal” in the Old’.3

In 2009 David Hockney exhibited a series of artworks created using a computer in a show entitled Drawing in a Printing Machine. The pictures were made using a stylus, an electronic drawing tablet and computer software. He then had a limited number of copies of each work printed for exhibition. The original computer files used in the making of the works have not been made available to the general public through internet downloads.4 One way of conceptualising Hockney’s practice in producing these pieces is to think of each print as a perfect copy of the others to which it is identical. They can be said to be reproductions only to the extent that they exactly resemble one another. No single print has primacy over any other; the first print to be produced does not have an aura that the others lack; none of them can be said to be the original work. It is as if Hockney had meticulously produced a series of paintings which were all absolutely identical, down to the finest brush stroke.

Roger F. Malina provides another way of thinking about such a practice. He argues that, ‘[i]n computer arts the artwork itself, embedded in digital data and software, is not directly accessible to the human senses’.5 Therefore the decision over which form to present the work in is ‘an artistic choice’, and Malina suggests that, ‘[t]his aspect of computer art connects it to the time-based and performing arts, where the creative work is in the score or text’.6 Work such as Hockney’s is static, therefore its presentation will always take the form of a showing rather than a performance. Consequently, it is more useful to think of this choice regarding presentation as being comparable to curatorial decisions, such as where to hang a particular work within a gallery space. The most significant technological changes, for our purposes here, that have taken place since Malina wrote his essay are the development of high-definition digital photography and the wide availability of internet connections. As a result of the former it is now possible for Hockney’s works to be photographed at such a high resolution that any prints made would be comparable in quality to those originally produced by Hockney himself. The latter means that these photographic images can be made widely available to the general public. A viewer of his work would therefore be able to, in effect, re-enact Hockney’s decision regarding the presentation of his art, or even – to use Malina’s phrase – choose his or her own ‘output device’.7

  1. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. by Lawrence Rainey (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 1095-1113 (1097). All subsequent references are to this edition. []
  2. Roy Ascott, ‘Art and Education in the Telematic Culture’, Leonardo: Supplemental Issue, vol. 1, Electronic Art (1988), 7-11 (7). []
  3. Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 6. []
  4. Cristina Ruiz, ‘David Hockney Swaps Oils for Pixels’, The Sunday Times, 22 March 2009, <> [Accessed 7 January 2010]. []
  5. Roger F. Malina, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Post-Mechanical Reproduction’, Leonardo: Supplemental Issue, vol. 3, Digital Image, Digital Cinema: SIGGRAPH ’90 Art Show Catalogue (1990), 33-38 (33). []
  6. Ibid., 33. []
  7. Ibid., 33. []

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