The Aura of the Digital

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Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” discussed the influence mechanical reproduction has on the aura of an object. Film and photography being a central focus in this. Benjamin focused on the originality and authenticity of aura and the diminished sense of aura attached to reproductions. (Benjamin, 2, 2008). This was theorised for tangible reconstructions. What happens to the aura when it is digitised? Can the digitised object carry the same aura as the original? Does the copy contain any aura at all? Often when one is faced with the digital they find themselves at a disconnect. The weird uncanny space that Stuart Jeffery describes as often “alienating”(Jeffery, 145, 2015). Why does such a disconnect exist? Jeffrey states unlike Walter Benjamin that is it not just the unoriginality of an object that causes us to question its aura but also the lack of proximity(Jeffery, 147, 2015). Proximity is an extremely important factor here as part of what gives artefacts their aura is their proximity to the past. Digital objects seem to not exist in a constant place, they do not decay the same way as physical objects, they are infinitely reproducible and ownership is questionable. This is why, as Jeffrey states, they appear as “the antithesis of an authentic object.”(Jeffrey, 146, 2015).

Mike Rowland talks about some of the interesting implications this can have for communities in Papua new guinea. One in particular is of Malangan carving in New Ireland. Funerary carvings in this part of New Ireland are used for ritual purposes which honour the dead in a complex set of rights and help remembrance in social memory and landscape. There is an interest to continue the Malangan carving traditions but local memory of methods have slowly declined. The carvings themselves are ceremonially killed and left to rot in the forest and the return of such objects causes anxiety and fear. Many of these carvings are held in museums across the world and ideas to reintroduce the objects to cultural heritage sites In New Ireland have met much contention. Local communities have however regained and viewed carvings though digital 3D models and images in order to regain a sense. Does this mean the digital representation carries no aura? The digital images to those in New Ireland appear distant and less threaten as it cannot be touched and is perceived as less real and not of this world. 3D representations therefore forgo any fears of returning carvings and sustains the carving tradition. What then is the point in cultural heritage reconstructions? Does it serve only a practical purpose? If such a disconnect is felt why 3D print and recreate?.
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This sentiment is felt as we can see with UNESCO’s stance in the rejection of the reconstruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Hazarajat. That “Better that the Buddhas empty niches stand as a memorial to the horrors of wanton destruction”(Sinclair, 2016). The reason why we recreate and restore is because reproductions are not void of aura. Many arguments can be made here in regards to this form of aura in reproductions but regardless some form of aura exists. The digital recreation of Malangan carvings carry their own aura which would not exist without the original copy therefore imbuing a sense of aura onto the reproduction. Digital reproduction can also be said to contain cultural biographies in which they acquire separate from the original. While living in Tokyo I often walked to Sensoji temple in Asakusa. The temple itself is of significant importance and is the oldest in Tokyo. I recall reading a sign post not far from the main entrance which stated that the entire grounds and the temple had been destroyed during fire bombings in World War II. The temple in its entirety is a reconstruction. In contrast to the UNESCO sentiment I felt that this reconstruction in its aura and cultural biography contained the proximity not only to Tokyo’s ancient past but to the war and its reconstruction. The temple exemplified this more than an absent space in the city.

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, http://www.berk-edu.com/VisualStudies/readingList/06b_benjamin-work%20of%20art%20in%20the%20age%20of%20mechanical%20reproduction.pdf, Accessed 28th of October 2016

Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology 1.1 (2015)

Rowlands, Mike. Digital Heritage Technologies and Issues of Community Engagement and Cultural Restitution in ‘New Style’ Ethnographic Museums. https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/digital-heritage-technologies-and-issues-community-engagement-and-cultural-restitution-new Accessed 28th of October

Sinclair, Mark. Should Museums be recreating the past?. https://www.creativereview.co.uk/should-museums-be-recreating-the-past/

2 thoughts on “The Aura of the Digital

  1. Ethan’s post is a very informative and interesting piece which dwells on the question of the aura of authentic artefacts and their reproductions. I agree with Ethan’s opinion that the unoriginality of the object and the lack of proximity to the past create a disconnect between the public and the digital reproduction. Ethan further contends the view that “reproductions are not void of aura” and that they acquire some aura from the originals. He also gives interesting examples in support of his view that digital/material reproductions acquire their own aura and cultural biography.

    While I agree to some extent with Ethan’s view that reproductions can have their own aura, I disagree with his opinion that we need to reconstruct monuments that have been destroyed. I do not support Ethan’s view that reproductions rather than the empty space (in the case of the Sensoji Temple and the Bamiyan Buddhas) bring us closer to the past. I think that the void space left after the destruction of a monument is a consequence of a historical event and this vacated space gives us a stronger connection to that event. I am of the opinion that reconstructions have their rightful place in the museums and we should not, by default, reproduce destroyed monuments in their original place. However sad the loss of a monument is, its absence is a testament to the particular historical event which we cannot and should not try to erase. The missing monuments in Palmyra will forever remind us of the atrocities committed by ISIS and reconstructing them in situ does not seem the right thing to do. It is the absence of the monument, the emptiness left after its destruction that emanates the strong sense of loss and destruction (for example the Twin Towers in New York). On the other hand, museums should be the place where the full story/biography of an artefact/monument is retold.

  2. On the subject of the aura of a digitised object versus the original object, the aura is necessarily different. A digitisation is merely a representation, demonstrating how the object appeared at one point in time. It is not representative of the history of the object, and is unblemished by the further passage of time. While this is valuable from a research perspective in that a digitisation or other copy contains details which may have been lost from the original, it is less valuable from a experience perspective. The experience of a digital artefact is, as Ethan suggests, disconnected. It is very nearly clinical. The experience of viewing the original artefact is much more spiritual, even when it does not seem to be. Viewing an original artefact conveys the aura of the object, not just of how it appears but also the aura of history that goes with it, the fact that it has endured through decades, centuries, and perhaps even millenia to still exist in the present day. This weight of history is one which is lost when viewing a digital copy.

    As a sidenote, I agree both with Ethan and Justin’s opposing opinions on the need for reconstruction of destroyed monuments. While Ethan contends that these reconstructions inherit the history of the original monument as well as the fact of their re-construction in the face of that history, Justin feels that the emptiness where a monument once stood is crucial to exemplify the fact of its destruction as the loss resulting. I feel that while both are (somewhat) right in what they are saying, reconstruction is more a testament of the human determination to survive and persevere, to rebuild that which has been lost. Rebuilding thus maintains the history of the original monument, the loss of it, and the history of the reconstruction.

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