Authenticity in the Digital World: how will the aura of the original evolve in the 21st century?

Monday morning (02 October 2017), Vastari and Cromwell Place hosted the first panel discussion in the blueprint breakfasts briefings that are held this week. This panel was lead by Culture Connect founder and managing director and previous ReACH Project Director on behalf of the V&A, Anaïs Aguerre. The rest of the panel was composed of Brendan Cormier (Senior Curator at the  V&A), Sam Jacob (principal of Sam Jacob Studio for architecture and design), Chance Coughenour (Programme Manager, Google Art&Culture  Founder, Rekrei). The goal was to get a better understanding of how the relationship between original artworks and its copies evolved over the past and are continuing to evolve in the present. The panel addressed elements such as quality and quantity, but also preservation and context, in order to determine the relevance of copies. Important questions that came up were ‘how is the notion of authenticity challenged by the digital world we live in?’, ‘how has this relationship with originality and copies affected artistic practice?’, and ‘what is the difference between cultural perpetuation and cultural preservation?’

“The best art students were once considered to be the ones who created the best copies, nowadays it has become about being the most original” - Sam Jacob

Initially, the panel drew parallels between the rise in plaster casts that resulted from Henry Cole’s 1867’s Convention for Promoting Universally Reproduction of Works of Art for the Benefit of Museums and the current flood of digital copies both online and incorporated into other artworks.

Although the medium differs, the intended practical role of both types of copies turns out to be quite similar. Henry Cole’s intention was to make monuments more accessible to all museums by creating plaster casts as cheap replicas for archival and research purposes. Similarly, photographs are now used provide a wider access for researchers and enthusiasts alike.

“Copies in the past have always been artworks in themselves as well as steps in the evolvement of art.” - Brendan Cormier

Another important parallel is that of preservation. Neither medium was intended to serve as a method of preservation, but due to the passage of time, natural disasters, or conflicts many artworks have been damaged or even destroyed. As a result, the plaster casts kept in some museums are often in better shape than the original monuments outside. The panel mentioned a Guatemalan artefact where the original’s inscriptions could not be read, but the plaster cast is still interpreted by scholars. The digital equivalent of this type of preservation is found in the Reikrei, formerly the Mosul project. This initially started as a crowdsourced database of photographs of destroyed objects from the Mosul Museum used to create 3D representations of what was lost, but has now extended beyond the Mosul Museum to more artefacts destroyed in conflicts.

Apart from the excitement and new possibilities for research, these replicas also create questions on the limitations of these copies and the consequences they might have for the preservation of original art. As such, they are often met with controversy and discussion, described by some curators and museum directors as “vulgar”. A number of the plaster cast collections in museums were destroyed or discarded as irrelevant or lesser to the original This is perhaps why most people continue to prefer damaged originals over well-preserved replicas. A fact which led the panel to the next point in their discussion on the importance of an artwork’s aura and the subsequent aura that was experienced from the copy.

“Copies were once seen as an initiative for public improvement, but then started being seen as vulgar” - Anaïs Aguerre

Can a copy convey the same emotion as the original? If not, are there other ways to emulate that emotion?? As an example: the 3D printed replicas in the Reikrei collection have become substitutes of their lost originals and recall the same memories of these original artworks. Whereas a Mona Lisa replica would be unable to inspire a similar degree of emotional transference as one can find high-quality replicas on the internet. In this case, the physical visitation must contain more than the visual experience. A replica could only replace the destroyed original if it is equally unique in providing a deeper opportunity for engagement.

So, like art, a replica’s appreciation is determined by the other available alternatives. Also like original art, this quality is not solely determined by the skill of the creator and the value of the material, but more often by the age of the object and the stories of its origins, its depiction, and its creator: the story we build, the “aura”. Depending on how much of these facts they know and/or appreciate, the public may balance the individual properties of both art and replicas differently than researchers and curators. For the public merely observes and experiences whereas the researcher/curator also studies the objects hoping to complete the knowledge in the aforementioned areas. This means that a copy may even provide a better insight on style and fashion of an era and thus be more valuable, but that the original is kept in higher public regard due to the aura it conveys.

“Google is democratizing access to culture by providing access for everyone with a smartphone” - Chance Coughenour

Lastly, the panel discussed how the role of copies related to progress and development. For art and culture are fluent movements, and in the past, copies and imitations have played a role in their evolution. Similarly, reproductions play a vital role in the development of new research methods to the extent that some traditional methods are no longer used by students, and thus will eventually disappear.

Critics of technology and the opportunities that it brings, may argue the loss of culture and authenticity in the replicas it builds, but in the end, we all will have to embrace the future…. after all, today’s copies may be tomorrow’s art.