An artist once paid a critic back for lunch by handing him a viewing copy of a video work, adding that this should be more than enough—after all, the piece was worth 25,000 Euro. Both were in on the joke, of course; both knew that a DVD viewing copy of an art video is worth even less than an empty new DVD. In a way, viewing copies do not really exist—their spectral status is owed to the art world’s economy of artificial scarcity and the severe limitations it imposes on the movement of images. Aby Warburg once called Flemish tapestries—early reproductive media that disseminated compositions throughout Europe—automobile Bilderfahrzeuge. Later media have proven to be rather more powerful “visual vehicles” capable of being produced on a Fordist assembly line. But rather than have the work travel to the viewer—an increasing tendency throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—in the case of video or film pieces in contemporary art the viewer has to travel to the work, installed in a gallery or museum.
In contemporary art, even pieces produced in media that allow for infinite mass (re)production are executed only in small editions. In the age of YouTube and file-sharing, this economy of the rarified object becomes ever more exceptional, placing ever-greater stress on the viewing copy as a means of granting access to work beyond the “official” limited editions and outside of the exhibition context. The viewing copy is the obverse of the limited edition: as a copy given or loaned to “art world professionals” for documentation or research purposes, it can never be shown in public. The viewing copy thus widens the reach of the work of art, but confidentially and in semi-secrecy. It is precisely this eccentric status of the viewing copy within the economy of art—which itself has an equally exceptional status within contemporary capitalism—that makes it an exemplary object, a theoretical object par excellence.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin makes a remark that effectively undermines his suggestion that the new media of photography and (especially) film will necessarily diminish the “cult value” and aura of artistic works. After all, as Benjamin admits, Hollywood’s star system creates a new, artificial aura by carefully constructing the big stars’ “personalities,” leading to a “cult of the movie star.” Essential for this cult was limiting the stars’ availability—the studios knew that too much exposure posed the danger of profanation. Like certain cult images that are only removed from their shrine during important festivities, the great stars were shown to the public only under carefully controlled conditions. One did not see Garbo in an endless stream of B pictures, but only in a few choice productions. Such films were first shown in the most prestigious of “first-run” theaters, only gradually trickling down to other cinemas. Whereas Hollywood created scarcity and aura within a medium of mass reproduction largely through crafting the star’s persona and maintaining his/her distance from the audience, the art world has developed a different way of imparting aura to film and video.
Hollywood and its minor equivalents in other countries sought to control the film medium’s capacity for reproduction. Reproduction was good insofar as it benefited the system; it had to be handled with care, and the erosion of aura had to be carefully regulated. This control has become extremely difficult, as the hysterical tone of some anti-piracy campaigns and various high-profile law cases show all too clearly. The prestige of major new productions creates a desire for access that can be easily satisfied by contemporary technology. In an age in which small digital cameras allow for new films to be “rephotographed” in movie theaters in order to be distributed on cheap DVDs or online, it is hard to keep the migration of moving images—their physical movement—under control. In art, viewing copies too get recopied or kept against the “agreement” imposed by the gallery. Curators, critics, and historians (and artists) assemble entire libraries of viewing copies that perform a function similar to that of a DVD collection of feature films. However, the status of these viewing copies is quite different, as their legitimacy in relation to the “official” gallery pieces remains dubious.
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