Davis, Douglas. “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995).” Leonardo, Vol. 28, No. 5, Third Annual New York Digital Salon, 1995. 381-386.
Douglas Davis, a scholar and early adopter of digital technologies, takes opportunity in this 1995 essay to contemplate Walter Benjamin’s classic 1936 work through a new digital lens. Within multimodal digital environments, a theoretical distinction can no longer be made between an original image and a reproduction. Even within the fine arts, the walls are closing in. Davis posits that “the aura….has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin’s prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself (381).” Forms of visual artifacts are changing as is the way and manner in which they are transmitted, positioned, and received. He stresses that many traditional theorists (“guardians of traditional modernity”) hide in their caves from new channels of communication (381). Davis outlines his own personal reflections and experiences throughout. He lights on his first experience with collaborative experiments in digital spaces, starting The World’s First Collaborative Sentence in 1994. Via the internet, the “sentence” allowed for not only words but also photos, graphics, links, sounds, and video, crafted from submissions over the internet, via email, snail mail and in person during display. The sentence still continues without a period.
David sees a divide between analog signals and digital messages, as analog loses clarity/fidelity over time while digital allows for little to no degradation and reproducibility (382). In approaching this reproducibility, he argues that, when images convert to digital bits, possibilities of “aura arrangement become endless” – “These modes of address and intersection are charged with powerful social and psychological implications (382).” Drawing on Peter Lyman’s prophetic notions of “centralization of control” in the politics of digital media, Davis breaks with theorists who saw the internet as a new form of oppressor; instead, he sees these environments as social, intuitive and interactive spaces that allow for new means of agency and crafted authenticity that “unlocks for the individual user a pluralist world of visual imagery, transmitted on demand and by personal choice” that serves to “empower imagination” in new spaces and ways (382).” This also leads Davis to make a compelling case for all information in digital spaces to be unconstrained by the government or by copyright.
In regarding the nature of the visual artifact in digital spaces, he argues that the moment an image is scanned or a word is produced on a touch screen by hand, the real is supplanted by the simulation. Davis wonders how far away we are from a computer program that evolves to craft original visual works or produce new phonologies. Certainly, problematics emerge not only around reproduction but within the nature of perception…how it will be forced to evolve. Davis finds this digital deconstruction of the visual nature of things as being valuable, because digital modes allow for revision and manipulation of a higher perceptual order. He provides examples of Blue Man Group performances in which the audience cannot discern between “live” and “taped” moments during the act. These seamless multimodal experiences still produce audience pleasure rather than perceptual confusion and collapse. Even video conferencing (the same as we employ in class) provides “yet further squeezing of now and then, here and there, real and artificial, original and manipulated (383).”
For Davis, Benjamin’s beloved aura has not been eroded (although we still value originals in masterworks); a virtual world opened up to global discourse simply has to explode the aura: “Surely it must now be further transformed, simply to survive the technical assault brought on by the digital age. But transformed into what? Dematerialized idea? Symbol? Presence (384)?” Such questions are easily exploded as well. He asks what becomes of humanity when subjected to “immersion in a created world.” Negating the discussion of theoretical possibility that we already are immersed in a created world, Davis longs “to find ways to increase the power of our subjective presence in the other reality.” His choice of words is very interesting, yet he finds that technological spaces and applications allow for “exquisite variations” as he makes the final call to action to “[l]et anarchy thrive” in digital arenas (385). But what of that aura…that authentic baggage that is dragged about in cultural evolutions and iterations? Davis leaves us with a final thought: “Here is where the aura resides – not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise (386).”