Victorian Photocollage at the AGO

Lady Filmer, from the Filmer Album, mid-1860s

The Victorian photocollage show currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario adds a new chapter to the history of montage and collage. The show consists of pages from a series of albums produced by British society women in the mid-nineteenth century. The pages cut and paste heads from cartes de visite, society portrait photographs, onto animals, exotic scenes and domestic interiors, playfully juxtaposing and arranging connections between families.  The cartes de visite were the first mass produced commercially available photographs, enabling a relatively large group of people to have photographic images of Queen Victoria and the like, which they collected in albums.  Society women like Lady Filmer, who is pictured above at work with knife and glue at her pink table, remixed such photographs against watercolor backgrounds, for the amusement of guests. The albums functioned very much as social networking sites like Facebook do today — except that these albums are literally “books of faces”, discreetly revealed to a visitor one wants to impress, who might leave their own carte de visite on the table.

It’s still commonplace to think of montage and collage as primarily modernist or avant garde practices, even though they’re clearly part of advertising or subcultures like hip-hop.  I make the argument in In Praise of Copying that montage is an essential part of folk-cultures, where cut and paste techniques, appropriation of materials from the environment, collaboration and collective authorship are basic strategies of cultural production.  I was particularly interested in things like quilting or cooking recipes: semi-anonymous, stereotypically feminine arts that involve the use of pattern to transform pre-existing materials — in other words, to make highly charged copies.

The Victorian photocollage show certainly makes one question to what degree montage is really an inherently radical practice.  If the montage of Berlin dada aimed at the destruction of the images that support a particular arrangement of society, these images playfully participate in constructing such arrangements. Playing With Pictures, the book that accompanies the exhibition, does a good job of situating the photocollage albums within the Victorian cultural context of upper class amusements such as the tableau vivant.  The “surreal” juxtapositions of animals and humans found in the albums are already there in Grandville’s Parisian periodical illustrations of the 1840s — but without the use of photographic material.  Susan Buck-Morss traced this tradition back through the Baroque in her Dialectics of Seeing.

Grandville, “Seven of Wands, II”, 1847

For Buck-Morss, and for Walter Benjamin, such images were bourgeois fantasies of the commodified utopia of nineteenth century capitalism. That analysis works well for Victorian Photocollage too.  Looking through the albums, it’s striking how often human faces are grafted onto the bodies of animals (second nature as nature), objects such as bags, juggling balls, mirror and cups (commodification), and presented within highly staged domestic spaces that look like IKEA showrooms (’nuff said).  As much as the albums are aimed at the consolidation of aristocractic Victorian society, the encroaching future, certainly bourgeois, but with the masses not far behind, is there in the gaps and disjunctures within the image, whose meaning is waiting to be realized. The mass availability of cartes de visite of the Prince of Wales allowed for his appropriation into other social milieux … Monty Python dreamt up a hundred years in advance by upper class Victorian women.

WikiLeaks as a Culture of the Copy

Plato wanted to keep imitation out of the Republic, even as he copied the words of Socrates to write his text.  The WikiLeaks affair reminds us how improbable that dream of a world without imitation remains today.   With WikiLeaks’ recent publication of 90,000 secret US military documents describing the day to day operation of the war in Afghanistan over the last six years, we can see familiar claims being made about the danger that the distribution of copies poses to the polis.  But it’s equally clear that the way that we make use and share copies forms an essential part of the functioning of a genuinely democratic republic.  Intriguingly, WikiLeaks’ logo is itself an image of the world being copied, duplicated: the real world perhaps leaking out of the false, spectacular “original”.

The stories about illegal copying that we’re most familiar with today concern intellectual property law: pirated copies of consumer products that break copyright, trademark or patent law in one way or another. Setting aside those cases where a company’s entire production and distribution system has been copied (see Adrian John’s recent book Piracy on NEC’s corporate doppelgänger), the issue is also usually connected to mass distribution of copies: filesharing of music and video being the most obvious example.  With WikiLeaks, the issue is state property and state secrets — just as it was with the event that people are comparing WikiLeaks with: the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 (itself a fascinating episode in the history of copying).  Sensitive or classified information is precisely state-owned information whose reproduction and distribution is controlled by law. It would be interesting to compare and contrast intellectual property law and laws governing classified information. The obligations of the state to its citizens are different to those of private property owners to the public, yet in both cases, particular historical notions of property, rights, ownership and copy are key to how things play out.

As Mark Rose tells it in his essential history of the birth of copyright law, Authors and Owners, there’s an intriguing link between laws governing copyright and “sensitive information”.  The censorship of the press, established and maintained through an agreement between the Crown and the printers guild known as the Stationers’ Company, broke down during the English Revolution of 1641-1660. When the monarchy was restored, the censorship of the press resumed, and journalist/authors such as Daniel Defoe were imprisoned for seditious writings.  The first calls for a copyright law which would give authors the right to claim their work as their property were made at the end of the seventeenth century.  One of the arguments made by Defoe, when he was released from Newgate prison in 1703, was that if a writer could be punished for saying something seditious, with the implication that the seditious writing belonged to him/her, then surely he or she should be rewarded for more acceptable writings by being recognized as the legal owner of his/her work.  Questions of responsibility were resolved within the emerging capitalist marketplace by being framed in terms of ownership.  The Statute of Anne became law in England in the spring of 1710.

What is new in the WikiLeaks situation is the sheer scale of the copying of state secrets, the ease with which the public can access these documents, and the possibility of a highly public debate on the WikiLeaks website that can build on and examine the documentation.  The notion of producing a copy of a war is not itself new.  As Paul Virilio has shown us, many of the key developments in twentieth century military technology aimed at allowing those conducting war to obtain as detailed a realtime picture as possible of a battlefield that could have many simultaneous geographical fronts.  This picture is already a copy, a representation of a war, and forms an archive of data that can be drawn upon in various ways.  While for obvious reasons the focus with the Afghan War Diary has been on the content of the revealed documents, it would be interesting to know how exactly these copies were copied: we know that they were often transcripts of radioed reports from the battlefield presumably entered into a database, but how exactly did such data make its way to Wikipedia’s website?  How do particular kinds of mediation by “copies” foreclose or enable different political possibilities?  Of course, it is precisely this kind of information that WikiLeaks will not be releasing, in order to maintain the anonymity of its sources.

WikiLeaks is a good example of what I mean when I say that the future of copying lies in depropriation. The word is not too elegant, it’s something I discuss in the last chapter of In Praise of Copying which is about appropriation. It’s clear that most of the crises and struggles around copying are about appropriation: I make a copy of x, x is not mine, by making a copy of it, I appropriate it.  But everything is in some sense appropriated, including x before I make a copy of it.  So the problem is: who has the right to appropriate something, or: who has the right to make a copy?  This is basically the question Marx asked. The problem with Marx’s answer — see the history of communism, as well as Marx’s own explicit remarks on the subject – is that it still assumes that appropriation is unavoidable.  When appropriation may precisely be the problem.  The notion of depropriation – which I take from feminist theorists such as Hélène Cixous and Avital Ronell – attempts to name the possibility of letting go of appropriation, of living without appropriating.  That’s very challenging since we appropriate with every mouthful of food we eat, every breath of air we take.  Buddhist texts recognized this problem and attempt to address it in a variety of ways, from extreme asceticism to continuous ethically focused exchange with the environment.  Depropriation seems to be a practical impossibility.   Yet we signs of it happening around us today, both in events and the circulation of ideas.  It’s something we can work towards: a world in which we minimize appropriation and maximize what Hardt and Negri call “the common”.  But we have to learn as individuals and as societies how to do that, which means addressing our own desire to appropriate.

I imagine that a lot people are suspicious of a “Buddhist” logic of depropriation since they assume that it means an attempted “quietist” withdrawal from mainstream society that lets capitalist appropriation continue unchecked.  But the history of Buddhist societies, for better and for worse, is not really one of quietism. Anyway, it’s not a question of idealizing those societies, whose faults are obvious to anyone who opens a history book. The issue is whether there is something within Buddhism that remains unrealized, or only partly, temporarily, occasionally realized, that can prospectively help us make a different world.,  Active depropriation … an ethics of engagement that means allowing oneself to be appropriated into a situation so that one can participate in transforming it without having to appropriate it again.  This is something we can learn a lot about from Buddhism.

William S. Burroughs called his incendiary 1959 novel Naked Lunch to mark “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”.  But what would that really mean?  The word we usually use for “appropriation” is “steal”, and the conventional narrative about WikiLeaks is that these secret documents have been stolen, appropriated.  What’s interesting though is to consider whose property they have become.  Unlike spy agencies who steal national secrets which then remain secrets, these documents have become visible without exactly becoming property.  They don’t belong to a nation-state; since they are published anonymously, they don’t belong to a particular person; they don’t belong to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, though he is obviously in danger of becoming the face or designated spokesperson for the documents.  They also don’t belong to the mainstream press, who, despite WikiLeaks’ collaboration with the New York Times, Der Spiegel and Guardian, probably stand to lose the most in the current situation.

WikiLeaks heralds a new kind of journalism, if indeed you can call it that. Thanks to the particular way that WikiLeaks has organized the presentation of the documents, they are truly depropriated copies, belonging to no one yet accessible to many.  It’s a great example of the way the politics of open source goes beyond questions of proprietary software code.  Assange rightly suggests that there might be legal proceedings that develop out of what is found in the leaked documents, and in this sense, we find ourselves in a familiar tho necessary struggle to reappropriate the meaning of this event. But perhaps that puts them back within a framework of appropriation which WikiLeaks has already done considerable damage to …

Thanks to Eric Cazdyn for pointing out the copy related nature of this story.

Brion Gysin at the New Museum

Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum in New York City is the first US retrospective show of the Beat multimedia pioneer.  I have yet to see the show, so I’ll save a review of it until that time. For me, Gysin is a major figure in the history of the theory and practice of copying and it’s great to see him getting attention via this show, Nik Sheehan’s excellent documentary Flicker, and John Geiger’s recent biography, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted and the collection Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age.

Most of Gysin’s work involves the exploration of the power of repetition – sound poems like “I Am What I Am”, the large paintings with their waves of script, the light loops of the Dream Machine.  The cut up, which Gysin invented according to William S. Burroughs, is not just the act of cutting up a text, but the repeated attempt to reconfigure and rearrange the fragments through permutation into a new whole which speaks the hidden truth contained in the original.

While it’s clear that the cut up has a long history in art, Gysin, along with Burroughs, may well have been the first to explictly claim that this practice exposed the nature of reality itself: that reality is “nothing but the recordings”.  Gysin claimed that the idea of the cut up came to him in Tangier, where he was running a nightclub and discovered one day that disgruntled employees had placed a spell on the restaurant in the form of an object with a text and various magical substances mixed together.

One of the core claims of In Praise of Copying is that all copies are “objects made out of fragments of other objects”, and since indeed all objects are “made of out of fragments of other objects”, everything is, in a specific sense, a copy.  While I take this insight in the direction of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy, which makes this argument in a very rigorous and disciplined way, I think I first became familiar with it from early Industrial musicians such as Cabaret Voltaire, writers such as Burroughs and John Giorno, the turntablist experiments of early hip-hop — and Gysin, who I saw in England in the early 1980s.

The aesthetic practice of collage, montage, cut up, has mostly been absorbed into the fabric of contemporary capitalism, where Dell’s post industrial assembly line will build you a computer that is a montage of Your Choices.  But the fundamental emptiness of everything that Gysin and others intuited through the practice of the cut up (which is mistaken today for a fascination with “multimedia” — another reification) remains in some sense the political problem today. It raises the question for example of property including intellectual property.  For a few years in the 1960s, the art object dematerialized (as Lucy Lippold puts it). But the commodity didn’t.   We don’t know how to talk about emptiness, or how to live in a universe which is an assemblage of temporary fragments.  Gysin, Burroughs, Giorno and those who worked through the cut up were trying to understand how best to relate to, align ourselves with this emptiness.  That’s still a work in progress …

Brion Gysin w. John Giorno, I Give You/You Give Me, 1965

Culture(s) of Copy/ 重復 重造 翻譯

An intriguing exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Hong Kong.  Contemporary art devoted to cross cultural thinking about the phenomenon of the copy.  Third part in a series of exhibitions that’s included History Will Repeat Itself – Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary (media) Art and Performance (2008) and Chinese Copy Art (2007) — this last one being an exhibition of German photographer Michael Wolf’s excellent photographs of south Chinese artists who make copies of famous artworks.

From the exhibition website: “It became clear that the term REPEAT should translate into COPY. ‘Culture(s) of Copy’ is about the phenomenon of the copy as a global cultural strategy. The discussion of intellectual property, as it has already been treated in diverse ways, is only one angle from which one can approach the topic. The ‘copy’ here is understood positively as a remake, a cultural translation and an achievement (“You have to copy a master to become a master”, “The best way to appreciate a master is to copy him”).”

No disagreement there.

Michael Wolf, “Copy Art #13, Vincent van Gogh, Euro 4.20”

Counterfeiting and Authentication in the Age of Forensics

Fascinating article in this week’s New Yorker by David Grann entitled “The Mark of a Masterpiece”. It concerns shifts in the ways in which paintings are authenticated or revealed to be forgeries — in particular,  the use of forensic techniques such as fingerprinting that claim to bypass the traditional methods of the art expert or connoisseur to scientifically validate authorship or otherwise. It’s a topic that I touched on in the “deception” chapter of In Praise of Copying, noting the complexity of all claims of authenticity.

It’s interesting how easily the alleged forger becomes an alleged expert and vice versa.  The piece, “classic sprawling New Yorker stuff”, as the Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation puts it, is elegantly written, showing how Peter Paul Biro, a Canadian art expert, debunks the claims of art world connoisseurs with his forensic methods … but then reverses itself in the second half, to examine the possibility that Biro himself is forging fingerprints in order to establish authentications.  While the author concludes that maybe the old fashioned methods of the connoisseur are perhaps more to be trusted than the flashy new gimmicks of the scientist, my own conclusion is that there are no claims of authenticity that are simply true.  Everyone is to some degree copying, and all methods of establishing authenticity can be copied.  Caveat Emptor. I think that behind the author’s faith in the connoisseur is the notion that even when two paintings look identical, the one that is the original must necessarily be the more aesthetically satisfying and that therefore someone with a refined aesthetic sensibility can not only make aesthetic judgments, but distinguish originals from copies.  I greatly admire the ability to discern very subtle differences between objects, but I find the way that this ability is deployed in making judgments of authenticity by no means self-evident.

Speaking of which, it’s striking how almost every event, every action, every actor in the piece involves money. The paintings are valuable or not, the opinions of experts cost money, even the journalist gets paid to write a piece. Which is to say that the question of authenticity, of what is original and what is copy, is an economic question. It involves commodities and commodification.  And commodification is itself mimetic, as Marx told us.  The object that appears in the marketplace, the expert opinion that is sold for $2000 a day — are already “copies”, with that dazzling power of the copy to enchant – and deceive – us.  The copies proliferate … and the more we look for them, the more we find them, everywhere around us  …