Art in the age of reproduction: Walter Benjamin

When Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal entitles “Fountain” to an art show in 1917 there was a big debate whether this readymade is art. Finally, the people in power (the board members of the “Society of Independent Artists”) decided to hide it from a public display in the exhibition. The notion of a urinal being displayed as an original piece of art in a gallery exhibition could not resonate with the deeply rooted tradition of the “auroral” interaction between (wo)man and art.

In 1935 Walter Benjamin once again challenged the question of  what is art, and how do major historical events, such as the capacity to reproduce art effect the interaction between (wo)man and the artistic expression.  In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) Benjamin argues that art’s traditional “aura” had been vanished with the availability of reproduction, changing the relationship between the creator, the work itself and the viewer, essentially robbing society from the “magical” and “divine” meaning, which derives from the interacting between the viewer and the original piece of art.

Last night we discussed Benjamin’s essay in class, touching on some thought provoking metaphors, such as the public (including the artist, (re)producer and viewer) being trapped in between the 24 frames per second of the film (Moretti in class, 2010), which made me wonder that if this were the case 65 years ago, trapped with friends and colleagues in a dark room being captivated by a new medium, “absent minded examiner”, how extensively are we trapped now, embedding mobile technologies in our everyday move, allowing it to be the new fabric of our culture? How absent minded are we in 2010?

I left class wondering where is the optimism in his essay, what is the potentiality of the new media’s effect on society as interpreted by Benjamin?

“The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by appreciation” (pg. 240).


February 24, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 2 comments.

Seeking the “Great Community”

John Dewey’s book “The Public & Its Problems” (1927) discusses concepts and issues that have been touched upon throughout readings and class discussions, being still relevant matters 83 years after the book had been written. Some of these concepts include associated and “localized” connections between people, interactions which direct behavior, driven by policy, democracy and essentially by a relatively small group of people.  The consequences of directed behavior generate a community of interest, the role of technology, potential of communication, importance of freedom of speech and access, and finally, the unavoidable mediocre nature of all communities.

“There are too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with. …Our concern at this time is to state how it is that the machine age in developing the Great Society has invaded and partially disintegrated the small communities of former times without generating a Great Community.” (p. 126-127).

Dewey calls the modern society to become a “Great Community” (chapter 5), defining conditions in which it can be done.  Such conditions include individual being a member of many groups, and groups interacting flexibly with other groups (p. 147).  In that sense communication technologies have the potential to facilitate the association between people in a democratic way.  Realistically, however, the modern society has been using technology-driven communication inappropriately, causing the transformation to a Great Community impossible.

Such notion sounds still relevant to today’s dilemma concerning new technologies and whether it advances human thought and our association to a globalized community.  It brings to mind the 3D film “Avatar” that I viewed this week on the big screen, where technology in theory afforded the association of modern society with another community from out of space, in search of scientific research and in support of materialistic greed (some approach the task of association in a more naive way than others).  In reality, the modern white man’s invasion of the community of the natives (futuristic, utopian yet vulnerable to the warriors of modernity) aggressively destroys any mutual association.  The natives from that planet are unified with nature (ecological awareness and positive co-dependency) – they exchange essential energy from the trees which supports their survival.  However, instead of taking the communication-facilitated-by-technology potential into constructive and unified “Great Community”, the white man who is a servant of the corporate modernity (even without proactively selecting this role) is sent to destroy the natives.

“I need your help” says the visitor to the native, realizing that he is held captive in the modern society – a world of greed, power and war, where effort is invested in the development of destructive technology.

February 10, 2010. Tags: , , , . Columbia University Doctorate. 1 comment.

My Various Hats

I’m a mother, wife, independent film executive, volunteer Chairwoman of Israeliness Family Program at the 92nd Street Y, do research work with the Harlem Schools Partnership, project manage a mobile game for health, while pursuing my doctorate degree at Teachers College, Columbia University.

How can I wear all of these hats and stay sane?  I read Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks” book (2006) and I am assured that wearing many hats simultaneously is possible, accepted and predicted.  I am not insane!  I am merely adjusting to the age of equality and democratic opportunity afforded by the Internet.  The sphere in which the removal of physical constraints on information production, the immersion in a diversely-motivated participatory system, and most of all the availability of free software (open source) provide a way for enhanced communication, organized relationships , and the creation of formal organization and new business models, based on web-based cooperation, wealth of information, speed and fluidity.

So why am I doing so much and hardly getting by financially?  How come I invested tens of thousands of dollars in a visually-pleasing, witty and edgy independent film (“Failing Better Now“, 2009), which falls into the crack of old model versus the new model of distribution, leaving the producers in wonder whether we should pursue a traditional business model (find a sales rep and a film distributor) or should we keep all rights and self-distribute the film as we go along?  Some producers argue that even after the huge investment of money, time and talent in the creation of a feature film, the current social structure driven by web-based networks would require us to distribute our baby free over the internet (see supporting NY Times article, Jan. 2010).  On the one hand, creative filmmakers can control their work’s destiny (at least in theory) when filmmakers and producers accompany their art in a self-distribution model, using the Internet as the main platform.  On the other hand, promoting and distributing your own artistic creation may keep you away from creating new work, and/or the outcome may be better when a film is placed in the hands of experienced marketing and distribution professionals.  In any rate, independent filmmakers are exploring the web as a fundamental social structure that changes the familiar model of film distribution.

What would you do if you were the co-owner of an East Village “chick flick with balls” indie that has urban appeal, festival awards and some distribution interest in Hollywood?  If you were in my shoes, would you hand the rights to a small company for distribution or would you self-distribute the film?  Would you produce DVDs and sell it online, or would you offer the film free online?

Benkler in this video interview (NYC, 2009) asks whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that it is becoming harder, maybe impossible to encapsulate information in discrete units and sell them.  How will creators ever make money (see the discussion about the film industry from 06:22 mins).

“The availability for opportunities for people to see film, respond to and care about opens up a new domain of small commercial film production; something that won’t be the primary way by which somebody makes a living, but a part of the mix of things they do for their life …to allow millions of more people to engage in film production”.

Yes, I’m here for the journey, and I am grateful for every moment of the experience of collaborating on making a feature film.  I recall my business partner Peter Schelfhaudt’s words to me when we were first considering investing in auteur filmmaker Keren Atzmon and her feature debut “Failing Better Now” 2.5 years ago.  He said that “independent cinema is a high risk business venture.  If we invest we do so for the experience, not the expected return of investment.  We do it as labor of love”.  And we did.

This brings me to a favorite quote from another text that we read for this week (Chapters 11 and 12 in Kurzweil, “The Age of Spiritual Machines” (2000) about attempting to understand how the year 2099 may feel like as an identity (or societies) in an augmented reality world where the computer brain surpasses the human brain. The native virtual AI character tells the 20th century human visitor: “Of course I’ve kept my old personality.  It has a lot of sentimental value to me” (p. 238).  This is how I feel toward independent film production.  I do it out of love of the craft, while I develop new practices (related and distant from the film production industry) as an explorer and a participant in the wealthy web-based networks.

February 2, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate, Independent Film Production. 3 comments.