The Here and Now of the Work of Art

Attached Images: 
Darkling Cruft
Dataloss Cruft
Deservings Cruft
Placebo Cruft

Let Art Flourish---and the World Pass Away

“’Fiat ars---pereat mundus,’ says fascism, expecting from the war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of a sense of perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.” (Benjamin 42)

In the early 20th Century, Walter Benjamin witnessed the attempt of fascism to render politics aesthetic, seen in propaganda such as Hitler’s mass rallies and ultimately in war, as expressed by the Italian futurist F. T. Marinetti. In the early 21st Century, we bear witness to the self-destructive aesthetic pleasure one feels watching 24 hour cable news, structured like reality television, presenting a world where what is truth and what is falsehood is nothing more than a difference of opinion. Our own self-alienation has reached the point that we are watching a system that profits from telling us news stories of freak weather anomalies while so many deny climate change. We witness the dehumanization of immigrant children held in cages, and the perverse sense that our systems of government are no longer working, while so many believe government is no longer necessary. All these narratives are presented to us in an electronic hallucination on screens supported by technologies that once promised free expression, and yet ironically seem to only produce the tightening of already existing corporate and governmental control.

As a visual artist working in the early 21st Century, I would like to present some of my work, while addressing a few ideas of Walter Benjamin that seem especially relevant to my own work in a post-digital landscape. My art practice produces code-based automated art, live art performance, drawing, painting and sculpture, all of which examines the relentless flow of information on the Internet that quickly becomes digital leftovers, to reveal a relationship in which we don't simply consume media, but are also consumed by it. I explore the Internet as source material to be appropriated, taken apart, juxtaposed, and recycled, by writing computer code that is automated and runs on a 24/7 schedule producing a form of collage I call Cruft. The resulting digital artwork allows me to investigate broader issues of traditional concepts---such as originality, creativity, authorship and eternal value.

The Internet has the ability to provide freedom by connecting us at great distances, democratizing the world's knowledge, and facilitating disruption and resistance to systems of power. It can also simultaneously provide control by restricting and regulating our thoughts and actions while propagating fear, divisiveness, surveillance and repression. My artwork delves into this very nature of the Internet, pulling at it’s strengths and exposing the flaws, producing what has been coined Post-Internet art, that by definition references the "network" that we all inhabit, and ultimately, it's effects on our society and culture.

Darkling CruftDarkling (an eye on dangerous) Cruft
http://www.robertspahr.com/work/darkling/
Created October 14, 2017 @ 08:47 AM
Started in 2017 with daily updates at 47 minutes past every hour
Source: CCTV Cameras in the City of New York
This cruft program creates an auto-generated animation which updates every hour, capturing images from surveillance cameras watching the streets of New York City. Caption

 

In his 1936 essay entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin discusses a shift in perception and its effects after the advent of film and photography.1 He writes of the loss of aura through the reproduction of art. For Benjamin the aura represents originality and authenticity. A painting has an aura while a photograph does not. He states, “In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art---its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence---and nothing else---that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership” (21). Digital information does not have an aura, as it usually never enters the world of atoms, and will always remain nothing more than computer bits existing nowhere and everywhere, displayed upon screens and stored on hard drives separated by large geographic distances. In the age of digital information which can be manipulated algorithmically, the separation between the here and now live event and its immediate documentation has completely blurred. Our social media habits reflect this compressed sense of time. While at some distant vacation destination, our family and friends will be able to immediately experience our documentation just moments after the live event. The Internet helps make these digital media objects ephemeral, ubiquitous, easily copied and freely available.


1I am using a recent translation of this essay which has changed the usual ‘mechanical reproduction’ to ‘technological reproducibility’ which is more useful for discussing Benjamin in the digital age.

 

Placebo CruftPlacebo Cruft (Reparation for Events Real and Imagined)
http://www.robertspahr.com/work/placebo/
Created April 6, 2019 @ 11:53 PM
Started in 2012, with daily updates at 5:53 & 11:53 AM & PM EST
Source: Yahoo! Image Search
This cruft algorithm selects search terms from a compiled list of life events that most people document with photographs. The search term is passed into Yahoo! Image Search, one of the resulting images is selected and a nostalgic filter is applied. With our network connected mobile devices the time between living an event and documenting that event has collapsed.

 

Sameness Even From What Is Unique

Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image [Bild], or, better, in a facsimile [Abbild], a reproduction. And the reproduction [Reproduktion], as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely entwined in the latter as are transitoriness and repeatability in the former. The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose “sense for all that is the same in the world” has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique. (23-24)

Benjamin shows that the destruction of the aura allows the mass media to create sameness out of images that were once unique. In my own artwork source images are transformed from unique moments on the network into a digital snapshot that is a residue of that particular moment. The network is a flowing stream of data that is source material for the cruft code that I have created which scrapes the Internet, and produces an overload of art work that mirrors the shear overwhelming amount of data we all produce and upload on a daily basis. Looking at Benjamin from within the digital landscape, he inspires us to ask such questions as: What is ephemeral and what is permanent in the digital age? Is there such a thing as a unique digital object? Is there such a thing as a unique digital experience?

The Internet is a giant copy machine and to view data on the web, a web browser must download copies of digital text, images, sound or video files (hence its infinite reproducibility, its apparent lack of an aura). To view a web page is to view a local copy. There is no real difference between downloading video and streaming video, a copy will always be made and viewed, though through corporate marketing, we are asked to consider streaming video as something other than a copy. In the digital age we worry about losing our ephemeral data or experiencing a failed hard drive. One irony of the digital age, is that once something has been uploaded to the web, it takes on a form of permanence, as it can never really be deleted. A second irony of the digital age is that when systems fail, such as when networks slow and data becomes corrupted resulting in a web page that loads displaying a unique “glitch,” that is a failure and corruption of the copy, not the ‘original’. This system failure transforms the digital object and digital experience into a unique one of a kind object / experience with an aura. In comparison, the artistic character of Cruft is entirely determined by its reproducibility. Cruft are variable by nature, and in a constant state of potential change, which is a radical renunciation of eternal value.

Dataloss CruftData Loss (Corruption)
http://www.robertspahr.com/work/dataloss/
Created January 08, 2017 @ 09:22 PM
Started in 2013 with daily updates at 9:22 and 3:22 AM & PM EST,
Completed on January 20th, 2017
Source: whitehouse.gov & thebureauinvestigates.com
This cruft algorithm downloads a recent photo from the Whitehouse.gov website as well as a report published by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism listing U.S. covert drone war casualty estimates. The text file of casualty estimates is literally inserted into the binary code of The White House photo. The drone war information becomes hidden from view, but corrupts the image producing visual distortion often referred to as a glitch. This work uses digital leftovers, consisting of information either usually forgotten, or in the case of the drone war information, it is usually hidden, and in the process this cruft re-generates a new image by altering the data, which then reminds us of it's origin.

 

An Aestheticizing of Political Life

All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations. That is how the situation presents itself in political terms. In technological terms it can be formulated as follows: only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technological resources while maintaining property relations. It goes without saying that the fascist glorification of war does not make use of these arguments. (41)

In my lifetime, it was the attack on September 11, 2001 that created a mass movement of fear and anger, as technology, warfare and the visual collided. I was in lower Manhattan, as I saw a small cloud of smoke rising above the towers. I was oblivious to the two passenger planes that were being subverted into missiles. I was experiencing warfare and terrorism, though at the time, not fully aware, I simply wondered if I would be late for work. The media showed images of the planes, the impact, and the buildings collapse, over and over, in a repetitive loop. Our screens had become weapons of terror. The system of representation was hacked, much like the planes and through this spectacle we were forced to relive the moment in a never ending present. The main stream media controlled the message and the United States was going to war. It was these events, and my questioning of what happened to the images once they became digital leftovers, that lead me to making the auto-generated digital collages I call Cruft.

Deservings CruftDeservings Cruft
http://www.robertspahr.com/work/deservings/
Created September 11, 2017 @ 10:12 PM
Updated at 12 minutes and 42 minutes past each hour.
Source: Yahoo! Images
This cruft program started running every 30 minutes beginning on August 1st, 2017. These 48 daily auto-generated images are a residue documenting this moment as we bear witness to the breaking news coming out of Donald Trump's White House. In the age of Trump, there is no other news.

 

The resulting endless war since September 11, 2001 has mobilized our technological resources as devices of fear and surveillance, that not only maintained property relations, but actually increased the speed of the wealth redistribution, which reached a fever pitch with the financial crash of 2008 and still continues to expand. The divisive rhetoric and the polarization of our current politics is the logical extension of Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on the aestheticizing of political life. We live in a time of global anger, expressed in 2016 with the British vote to leave the European Union, known as Brexit, and the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. The aestheticizing of our political life is now complete. The tools used to aestheticize our political life are the Internet, social media, computers, mobile phones and main stream media all of which have been weaponized to produce fearmongering, surveillance capitalism, and mind control. As an artist I use these very same tools subverting the fear, surveillance and mind control, to create art that is an act of resistance in an age of technological reproducibility.

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