In college I was obsessed with the idea of distance, both literal and as a metaphor, specifically how distance was used as a device in art and art theory. Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” introduced the idea that art has a special “aura” unique to its time and space that cannot be duplicated through mechanical means, and in fact, the reproduction can devalue the original. Confronting these concepts in 1935, Benjamin was just at the cusp of the what technology could do, how it could transform our relationships to the “living” object, the perceived soul in the work of art.
I wrestled with these ideas of digital distance, presence, time and space. What happens in the gap between the original and the simulcra? For Benjamin, mechanical reproduction introduces distance, like peering through a telescope. Could he ever have imagined a world where both artistic creation and reception could happen through technology, where the entire concept of an “original” falls away? Regardless, we are organic creatures; Benjamin points us to the spatial and temporal experiences found only in direct sensation — to view, to breathe, to occupy, to understand the unique expression captured only once.
You can extrapolate his theories and argue that eventually, the mechanical reproduction will ring hollow and we will crave the authentic, the original, the presence of an “aura” that only comes with true work of art. This last year or so has made us all experts at distancing and mediated experiences — locking eyes with a green dot to appear to look into the soul of our intended audience, whether singular or a multitude.
I was thinking about this today during a chat with a colleague who has been showing a video of me conducting an interview as part of a regular presentation. That version of me in the video has been a steady companion for my colleague, but is completely removed from me and my continued experiences. While my video is not a work of art, it captured a moment, holding that interaction in place. Once recorded, it went on to be re-experienced over and over, developing its own history. Others have mentioned it to me, but they only saw it once. My colleague, the presenter, revisited “me” every time, writing and rewriting our history, pushing the original event further back, replacing it with the version now memorized.
As we emerge from our Zoom-cocoons soon, I look forward to the opportunity to see and connect with each other in meaningful ways and appreciate the gift of closeness, authenticity, and the uniqueness of a singular spatial and temporal experience — that which cannot be reproduced.