The Power of the Image: Objectivity, Authenticity, and Reconstruction (AFF-622)

This blog post is the third in a series, click here for part 2.

 In my previous two posts from this series, I explored some of the pros and cons of photorealism and non-photorealism. I’ve come to realise that critically thinking about the ‘correct’ application of a visual aesthetic is at once both subjective and objective; it would appear that using photorealistic or NPR techniques in digital heritage is dependant on a plethora of factors, though it usually seems to either come down to the task at hand or purely the desired visual aesthetic of a certain technique relative to that particular task. When we consider the pure authenticity or objectivity of reconstruction, we are at once reminded again of Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Indeed, questions of the objectivity of reconstruction appear to be one of the focal points of argument among digital heritage scholars. The reconstruction of artefacts, the presence of an ‘aura’ (or lack thereof), and the pure authenticity of such reconstructions as either replicas or replacements are all factors one must consider when trying to discern the ‘Power’ of the image in Digital Heritage. Certainly, the idea of an authenticity regarding a reconstruction’s aura cannot be overlooked in cultural heritage. Kalay et al. refer to the West’s often object-centred concepts of heritage itself, and highlight that born-digital objects are often bestowed with an occupational emphasis toward materialism and collecting for posterity (Kalay et al. 2007). When we look at reconstructions, are we looking at the most faithful representation of the object, or is its faithfulness irrevocably lost in replication?

One of the clear goals of reconstruction of a space seems to be the situational recreation of presence, the feeling of ‘being there’. I have explored more recently the idea of ‘immersion’ in video games, where this concept is intrinsically important, and the debate carries over into Digital Heritage applications; indeed the feeling of ‘being there’ should be taken into account when speaking of, say, virtual museum visits and the like. The notion of presence however is hard to define exactly, as Tost and Champion both point out that there are distinctions between the technological definition of presence and the presence defined by museum study. They state that the critical digital heritage evaluation of a cultural heritage space is ‘not of perceived reality, but of perceived culturally encapsulated forms of culturally significant reality’ (Tost, Champion 2007). The field of ‘presence research’ appears to be constantly at loggerheads about such issues. If we are trying to visually replicate or present these pockets of culturally significant reality, perhaps the authenticity of such applications is inherent  in their function.

Take, for example, the recent unveiling of the facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb at The Valley of the Kings in April 2014. Began in 2009, this replication at once combines both the sleek modernity of a contemporary museum experience in its presentation, while displaying almost exact replications of fragments of the interior of the original tomb. The fact that this is situated right in the Valley of the Kings must certainly lend it an air of authenticity. Indeed, the emotional response recounted by Marguerite Del Giudice is telling of the impact these kinds of reconstructions can have, regardless of an integrity of whatever ‘aura’ may be bestowed upon it. This kind of museum experience is positive, as it isn’t making a case for creating a surrogate for an aura, it is inheriting its own by creating a presence for a visitor of both old and new. The visitor knows they aren’t seeing the original, but it provides some form of context as to what the aura of the original must be like.

Facsimile of the tomb. Visitors can view the replicas at a normal viewing distance without fear of damage of the artefacts.

At any rate, the ever evolving state of technology surrounding Digital Heritage ensures that although reconstructions may evolve to a stage where accuracy becomes perfection, questions of authenticity will no doubt continue to be issues within the Heritage community that will need to be addressed. Certainly, it must be acknowledged that using methods of digital reconstruction is merely a migration of analogous methods that preceded them and we should accordingly treat issues of obsolescence as points of growth, rather than redundancies.

 

References

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, Web, accessed on 28/11/2015.

Del Giudice, Marguerite, Tut’s Tomb: A Replica Fit for a King, National Geographic, 2014, Web, accessed 28/11/2015.

Factum Arte, The Facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Web, accessed 28/11/2015.

Kalay, Yehuda; Kvan, Thomas; Janice Affleck, New Heritage: New Media and Cultural Heritage, 2007, Routledge, Print.

Kasteren, Joost van, Analogue versus Digital Storage of our History, from Digitcult: Integrity and Authenticity of Digital Cultural Heritage Objects, Journal, August 2002.

Tost, Pujol Laia; Champion, Erik Malcolm, A Critical Examination of Presence Applied to Cultural Heritage, CEPAP, Autonomous University of Barcelona; Media Arts, COFA, University of New South Wales, 2007, accessed 5/12/2015.

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rbreen

MA Digital Humanities student in An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University. BA Music from Maynooth University.

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