extract from Boris Grois at e-flux:
More than anything else, what the installation offers to the fluid, circulating multitudes is an aura of the here and now. The installation is, above all, a mass-cultural version of individual flânerie, as described by Benjamin, and therefore a place for the emergence of aura, for “profane illumination.” In general, the installation operates as a reversal of reproduction. The installation takes a copy out of an unmarked, open space of anonymous circulation and places it—if only temporarily—within a fixed, stable, closed context of the topologically well-defined “here and now.” Our contemporary condition cannot be reduced to being a “loss of the aura” to the circulation of ritual beyond “here and now,” as described in Benjamin’s famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”3 Rather, the contemporary age organizes a complex interplay of dislocations and relocations, of deterritorializations and reterritorializations, of de-auratizations and re-auratizations.
Benjamin shared high modernist art’s belief in a unique, normative context for art. Under this presupposition, to lose its unique, original context means for an artwork to lose its aura forever—to become a copy of itself. To re-auratize an individual artwork would require a sacralization of the whole profane space of a copy’s topologically undetermined mass circulation—a totalitarian, fascist project, to be sure. This is the main problem to be found in Benjamin’s thinking: he perceives the space of a copy’s mass circulation—and mass circulation in general—as a universal, neutral, and homogeneous space. He insists upon the visual recognizability, on the self-identity of a copy as it circulates in our contemporary culture. But both of these principal presuppositions in Benjamin’s text are questionable. In the framework of contemporary culture, an image is permanently circulating from one medium to another medium, and from one closed context to another closed context. For example, a bit of film footage can be shown in a cinema, then converted to a digital form and appear on somebody’s Web site, or be shown during a conference as an illustration, or watched privately on a television in a person’s living room, or placed in the context of a museum installation. In this way, through different contexts and media, this bit of film footage is transformed by different program languages, different software, different framings on the screen, different placement in an installation space, and so on. All this time, are we dealing with the same film footage? Is it the same copy of the same copy of the same original? The topology of today’s networks of communication, generation, translation, and distribution of images is extremely heterogeneous. The images are constantly transformed, rewritten, reedited, and reprogrammed as they circulate through these networks—and with each step they are visually altered. Their status as copies of copies becomes an everyday cultural convention, as was previously the case with the status of the original. Benjamin suggests that the new technology is capable of producing copies with increasing fidelity to the original, when in fact the opposite is the case. Contemporary technology thinks in generations—and to transmit information from one generation of hardware and software to the next is to transform it in a significant way. The metaphoric notion of “generation” as it is now used in the context of technology is particularly revealing. Where there are generations, there are also generational Oedipal conflicts. All of us know what it means to transmit a certain cultural heritage from one generation of students to another.
We are unable to stabilize a copy as a copy, as we are unable to stabilize an original as an original. There are no eternal copies as there are no eternal originals. Reproduction is as much infected by originality as originality is infected by reproduction. In circulating through various contexts, a copy becomes a series of different originals. Every change of context, every change of medium can be interpreted as a negation of the status of a copy as a copy—as an essential rupture, as a new start that opens a new future. In this sense, a copy is never really a copy, but rather a new original, in a new context. Every copy is by itself a flâneur—experiencing time and again its own “profane illuminations” that turn it into an original. It loses old auras and gains new auras. It remains perhaps the same copy, but it becomes different originals. This also shows a postmodern project of reflecting on the repetitive, iterative, reproductive character of an image (inspired by Benjamin) to be as paradoxical as the modern project of recognizing the original and the new. This is likewise why postmodern art tends to look very new, even if—or actually because—it is directed against the very notion of the new. Our decision to recognize a certain image as either an original or a copy is dependent on the context—on the scene in which this decision is taken. This decision is always a contemporary decision—one that belongs not to the past and not to the future, but to the present. And this decision is also always a sovereign decision—in fact, the installation is a space for such a decision where “here and now” emerges and profane illumination of the masses takes place.So one can say that installation practice demonstrates the dependency of any democratic space (in which masses or multitudes demonstrate themselves to themselves) on the private, sovereign decisions of an artist as its legislator. This was something that was very well known to the ancient Greek thinkers, as it was to the initiators of the earlier democratic revolutions. But recently, this knowledge somehow became suppressed by the dominant political discourse. Especially after Foucault, we tend to detect the source of power in impersonal agencies, structures, rules, and protocols. However, this fixation on the impersonal mechanisms of power lead us to overlook the importance of individual, sovereign decisions and actions taking place in private, heterotopic spaces (to use another term introduced by Foucault). Likewise, the modern, democratic powers have meta-social, meta-public, heterotopic origins. As has been mentioned, the artist who designs a certain installation space is an outsider to this space. He or she is heterotopic to this space. But the outsider is not necessarily somebody who has to be included in order to be empowered. There is also empowerment by exclusion, and especially by self-exclusion. The outsider can be powerful precisely because he or she is not controlled by society, and is not limited in his or her sovereign actions by any public discussion or by any need for public self-justification. And it would be wrong to think that this kind of powerful outsidership can be completely eliminated through Modern progress and democratic revolutions. The progress is rational. But not accidentally, an artist is supposed by our culture to be mad—at least to be obsessed. Foucault thought that medicine men, witches, and prophets have no prominent place in our society any more—that they became outcasts, confined to psychiatric clinics. But our culture is primarily a celebrity culture, and you cannot become a celebrity without being mad (or at least pretending to be). Obviously, Foucault read too many scientific books and only a few society and gossip magazines, because otherwise he would have known where mad people today have their true social place. It is also well known that the contemporary political elite is a part of global celebrity culture, which is to say that it is external to the society it rules. Global, extra-democratic, trans-state, external to any democratically organized community, paradigmatically private—I would say that these are the icons of a privacy understood also as a rejection of logic and reason, as a degree of sovereignty of judgment equivalent to madness. These icons are, in fact, structurally mad—insane.
Now, these reflections should not be misunderstood as a critique of installation as an art form by demonstrating its sovereign character. The goal of art, after all, is not to change things—things are changing by themselves all the time anyway. Art’s function is rather to show, to make visible the realities that are generally overlooked. By taking aesthetic responsibility in a very explicit way for the design of the installation space, the artist reveals the hidden sovereign dimension of the contemporary democratic order that politics, for the most part, tries to conceal. The installation space is where we are immediately confronted with the ambiguous character of the contemporary notion of freedom that functions in our democracies in parallel with sovereign and institutional freedom. The artistic installation is thus a space of unconcealment (in the Heideggerian sense) of the heterotopic, sovereign power that is concealed behind the obscure transparency of the democratic order.
A version of this text was given as a lecture at Whitechapel Gallery, London, on October 2, 2008.