The Work of Art in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
By Nolan Kelly

A research-based thesis presented to the faculty of the Culture & Media Department, Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts
December, 2019

Portrait of Edmond de Bellamy, with GAN algorithmic model in place of artist signature. Courtesy Christie’s.

Prologue – Case Study

In autumn of 2018, the New York Times published an article in their Art & Design section regarding a sale at Christie’s auction house that was notable for several reasons. Edmond De Belamy, which had sold the previous day to an anonymous phone bidder, was part of a Prints & Multiples lot showing alongside Warhol and Lichtenstein ink prints.[1] The work was itself an ink print, on canvas, but in a style somewhat resembling an unfinished pre-modern oil painting – comparable in tone and color, according to a Columbia University art history professor, to the style of Rembrandt van Rijn “if I look half-closing my eyes.” The head of Christie’s Prints and Multiples department noted that, “It looks like something you’d expect Christie’s to sell,” before adding that they had recently processed the sale of Salvator Mundi – a rediscovered portrait of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and painted circa 1500,[2] and which sold for half a billion dollars.[3]

Edmond de Belamy is a portrait as well, but this is where the similarities end. The subject itself is apocryphal, and the image of the subject has no correlative in reality. The same could perhaps be said for the artist – Christie’s attributes the work to no single creator but instead describes the work as ‘published’ by Obvious Art,[4] a Parisian collective composed, according to the Times, “of a student of machine learning and two business school graduates, none of whom have a background in art.”[5] The publishers created the work with an open-source Generative Adversarial Net (GAN), a computational technique that is a widely recognized form of artificial intelligence (AI), which “learn[ed] to imitate sets of images fed by humans — in this case, thousands of portraits spanning the 14th century to the 20th.”[6] In place of signature, the bottom right portion of the canvas was printed with a generic version of the algorithmic code used to produce the image: ming  maxd  Ex [log(D(x))] + Ez [log(1 – (D(G(z)))]. As Anaïs Rolez discusses in her essay responding to the sale, “human intervention [was] limited to selecting in the first place the large set of existing portraits fed into the system and used by it as examples of the expected output.”[7]

Notably, Christie’s faced criticism for going to sale on a piece of work that many deemed “a knock-off.”[8] But this criticism did not come from the auction house patrons expecting to bid on original objects. Instead, those upset by the work were other artists working with AI technology, who described the GAN algorithm used in the production as damningly similar to codes other artists were using in the field – to the point of questionable plagiarism. Hugo Caselles-Dupré, one of the members of Obvious, responded with acknowledgement that portions of the code had been copied from forums online, including algorithms shared by AI generative artist Robbie Barrat, and defended this by saying the code was “open-source,” belonging to no one. “If you’re just talking about the code, then there is not a big percentage that has been modified…But if you talk about working on the computer, making it work, there is a lot of effort there.”[9] This apparent effort was, for the community of artists engaged with algorithm, the contested grounds of legitimation of the work itself. Mario Klingemann, an artist also working with GANs, “compared the portrait by Obvious ‘to a connect-the-dots children’s painting.’”[10]

Perhaps most notably however, was the element of the sale itself. The first A.I. generated work of art to be sold at a major auction house, Edmond de Belamy was initially estimated by Christie’s to be worth between seven and ten thousand dollars, based on previous direct sales between Obvious and private collectors. It sold, on October 24, for more than 40 times that estimate; the anonymous bidder paid nearly half a million dollars for it, more than the combined price of the Warhol and Lichtenstein lots that also auctioned.[11] The message of this moment may seem, itself, rather obvious: capitalism has conferred aesthetic legitimacy upon works created from computer code, and in the visual art market mechanical reproduction has become fully realized as a form of production in its own right. The apocryphal portrait, while calling attention to its inorganic and purely associative artistic qualities inherent to nearly all facets of its production, had nevertheless been fetishized by a number of socially legitimating bodies – most formally, the auction-house, the bidders, and the media reporting on it. It had, in spite of its every attribute, attained a venerative distancing – what media theorist Walter Benjamin would call an “aura,” and the significance of which I will attempt to deconstruct in this essay.

Dialectics for the 21st Century

The troubled status of the Edmond de Belamy work – as an original artistic object, a selective reproduction, a valued commodity, an event in the history of aesthetic consecration – are focal points from which we can examine, test, and renegotiate some of the theories which have been formative for a modern understanding of media, particularly the theses of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s 1935-36 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” his most well-known work, has been applied as a widely-read text for assessing artistic and technological developments in the 21st century.[12] For at least the past three decades, the Work of Art essay “may have been quoted more often than any other single source, in areas ranging from new-left theory to cultural studies, from film and art history to visual culture, from the postmodern art scene to debates on the fate of art, including film, in the digital world.”[13] This tells us explicitly that, in the recently expanding realm of digital interaction and concurrent global integration, Benjamin’s identifications have felt prescient and pertinent. It also tells us, implicitly, that the sheer applicability of the essay across a range of fields holds immense potential for misapplication, as well as misinterpretation of the author’s core concepts, which in turn poses to compromise the integrity of the essay’s reception as a whole. In the critical analyses of Miriam Hansen and Susan Buck-Morss, it becomes clear that this is the case.

The structure of the Work of Art essay, as a series of discursive, brief, passionate theses, inherently spells out the danger of over-deterministic reading. On the strength of this essay Benjamin has been declared a techno-utopian; he has been hailed with inaugurating the liquidation of the aura and identifying a praxis of revolutionary cinema. To make much of any of these claims is to misunderstand the author’s foremost rhetorical strategy of dialectics: the identification by Benjamin that two potentially opposing positions may be simultaneously correct or effectual, changing in relevance and relationship depending on the time period, polity, and conditions of production.[14]

When writing about the newspaper, Benjamin may bemoan modernity’s increasing compartmentalization of knowledge into information, which in turn requires more elite and technical classes to produce and consume this information within a Capitalist economy. Yet he simultaneously hails the  newspaper as the primary liberative tool for the masses in Soviet Russia, where authors and readers blend, increasingly and productively: “It is at the scene of the limitless debasement of the word – the newspaper, in short – that its salvation is being prepared.”[15] The same appraisal of competing possibilities infects all of his writing, as he finds the conditions of the present are far from determined. The very structure of the Work of Art essay, as a spread of overlapping, equally valid theses, supports this reading, as does Benjamin’s critical praxis, his goal of “grasping the ‘temporal core’ of the present in terms other than those supplied by the period about itself.”[16]Read from the perspective of an empiricist, the Work of Art essay may therefore seem flimsy, inconsistent, bombastic, and diffuse. As a constellation of dialectical images however, the writing becomes continuously provocative.

By the early 19th century, German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach had identified a tendency within his age to “prefer the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence,” – a canary call of mediation as affective toward human consciousness.[17] By the early 20th Century, Benjamin had diagnosed the proletarian consciousness as denuded by “technologically caused shock and the emergence of ever more powerful aesthetic techniques” intended to further capture and exploit the attention of the masses.[18] “In industrial production no less than modern warfare, in street crowds and erotic encounters, in amusement parks and gambling casinos, shock is the very essence of modern experience,” Buck-Morss notes of the time period from which the Work of Art essay emerged,[19] and so to the point that the continual manipulation of the addled modernist consciousness could engender “humanity’s self-alienation [to] reach the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”[20] That is, if fascism succeeded in holding the proletarian eye with its phantasmagoric spectacle of warfare, as Futurists such as F.T. Marinetti were already eagerly proposing to do. “Such is the aestheticization of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism responds by politicizing art.”[21]

Here we have the primary dialectic constructed within the Work of Art essay, and it is a contentious one; placing communism and fascism against each other in the field of aesthetic principle.[22] A German-Jewish Marxist living in France as Nazism swept through his home country, these sociopolitical opposites were nearly touching at the time Benjamin was first formulating his work, and the prognostications which conclude “Work of Art” have an immediacy to them which history has stupefied in the increasing distance between the essay’s publication and its reception. The primary organs of fascism and communism of the author’s time were both eventually defeated. But the unrealized eventualities of both, and their continual potential, are what allow the Work of Art essay to retain its relevancy today, as we continue to exist within a dialectical balance of these competing utilities of art.

Artwork has no singular utility in the 21st century capitalist economy, and this is tied directly to its status as art, placing within a sphere of subjective relevancy. Art in either the fascist or communist contexts Benjamin provided would be seen here plainly as propaganda, and would cease to be art as we think of it today. By rejecting a propagandistic approach, capitalism allows the aesthetic realm to persist as an ostensibly neutral space between state and citizenry – the space of business. Within the realm of a business transaction, the political relevancy of a work of art is decontextualized, made impotent. One can go to see paintings by Marinetti at the Guggenheim Museum,[23] or Communist propaganda made by the Dziga Vertov Group at a Metrograph matinee.[24] The message of either work is less important that the ticket you pay for it. Literary theorists have declared the author’s intention to be irrelevant to the creation of art, finding that “a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”[25] But art today is bound for many vertiginously unequal destinations, each with its own system of production and platform of distribution which allow the work to be received by audiences vastly mutable in size and selectivity. From the website to the private auction room, these platforms must as a rule be profitable, and so the conditions of reception, if not production, ensure even against the message of the work itself that the nature of the art presented shall preserve this status quo.

The status quo of capitalism is capitalism, but aesthetic techniques used under it – by artworks themselves, by the systems of production which allow these works, and the platforms of distribution which present them – can still be construed between the dialectic poles of fascism and communism. These poles, under the aegis of capitalism, no longer represent ideologies of specific dogma, as they did during Benjamin’s time, but stand in as methods for organizing power – structures of accumulation and diffusion. The techniques which Benjamin first identified as furthering fascist ideology are those which prize the artwork as unique and occult: idols, totems, original masterpieces from ubiquitously consecrated masters. Works falling under this valence are considered precious to the point of sanctity, their viewership restricted as such.[26] This is the historicized model of aesthetic appreciation, what Benjamin refers to as “the first technology” – that of the occult.[27] Techniques which undermine this mode are ones of reproduction – “the second technology” – and the redistribution of access which comes as a result: popular music; the cinema; the pastiche, homage or bootleg. By constructing works capable of widespread availability, these techniques function with an inherently communal bent, eliminating the barriers of acculturation, and the need for a patrician class to provide their sanctifying recognition.[28] Recognition of quality moves to a point of negotiated consensus, “the massive reaction of the audience, determined by the imminent concentration of reactions into a mass,” and every viewer gains the power of critical inquiry to play a determining role.[29]

Because both technologies exist robustly in our contemporary capitalist marketplace as strategies of presentation, recognition, and validation, this ensures the enduring relevance of Benjamin as modernism’s diagnostician. In regards then to aesthetic realm, capitalism can therefore be thought of as the enacted and ongoing dialectic between Benjamin’s two competing modes of technology – fascistic and communistic. The contemporary aesthetic realm is far from a set system of qualitative categories, as Benjamin imagines both fascistic and communistic bodies would entreat. Instead, this realm reproduces the capitalist marketplace in the form of suppositions and ideas, values which come into currency as methods of evaluation and classification. It is basically impossible today, at least within the United States, to encounter art which does not show conflicting ideological techniques somewhere within its content, style, presentation, distribution, or receptive setting. In making art a commodity, capitalism erodes the work’s potential for true sanctity or true accessibility. A price will be fixed (if only temporarily) for even the most priceless of works. Likewise, the most publicly-minded works will be privatized.[30] 

Like stock in the marketplace, these ideological values are always in flux, and they will continue to be for as long as artwork demands a correlative profit with its reception, and this value is determined by parasitic strictures of industry which command roles of production, distribution and reception, as opposed to the artists themselves. As recent trends in the auctioning and private ownership of art have made clear, works are constantly appreciating or depreciating in value.[31] But the works themselves do not change, only the culture around them does. The dialectics between these two technological modes are therefore located in the assessments of value which circulate around a given work of art, as much as they may be employed by the techniques of that work itself. They are used as indiscriminate means for the ends of capitalism, and both the strategies of secluding and showing appear to be equally effective at turning a dollar.

It is within this productive pluralism that a conception of the aura now sits. The most influential aspect of Benjamin’s thinking (though he did not invent the concept), [32] his notion of the aura has received continuous attention since the publication of the Work of Art essay– and with it, frequent misunderstanding.[33] Benjamin defines the aura as “the unique phenomenon of distance [regarding an object], however close it may be,” and grounds this experience as one of defamiliarization within the natural realm – projection of conscious experience of human beings onto nature.[34] “If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch,” Benjamin says, somewhat cryptically, considering that the aura is most typically located within the realm of the human-made.[35] Hansen, remarking upon this notes that, “The experience of the aura in natural objects is neither immediate nor 'natural' (in the sense of mythical) but involves a sudden moment of transference, a metaphoric activity.” [36] In his example, the viewer regards the mountain view not as a landscape at some physical distance, but as an image distilled and flattened by the human eye, an image distanced by its ambiguous significance. The same process then takes place when regarding a painting; its sense of weight and power is not derived from the distance at which one stands opposite pigment, canvas, and wood (natural materials all), but at the hermeneuticdistance by which the viewer regards the unnatural – a crafted image, displayed for ambiguous intentions. Why is this painting here on the gallery wall? we ask ourselves. Who made it? And why has this object from another time and place been preserved to be presented to us now? By distancing ourselves from the image before us, we then locate ourselves in relation to it.

The “distance” of the aura is therefore recognition of the work’s uniqueness, it’s specific history as a crafted object of meaning. Aura transforms nature into image and object into talisman, both of which distance us and demand our contemplation. The decline of the aura is therefore a result of “the desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things spatially and humanly, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by appropriating it in the form of its reproduction.”[37] Nature is returned to terrain; the object becomes an object again when its likeness is placed in our hand. The painting on the wall becomes a postcard or a graphic – mutable, manipulable.

As Hansen notes, “Benjamin's attitude towards the decline of the aura is profoundly ambivalent, just as the concept of aura itself displays an ‘irritating ambiguity’… If the perception of the aura thus refers to a particular appearance of nature in potentially all objects, it is also conceptualized, from the start, as dependent upon the social conditions of perception, as contingent upon historical change.”[38] In the Work of Art essay, Benjamin leaves no doubt that, being contingent upon the social conditions of perception, the experience of the aura is irrevocably in decline, precipitated by the effects of industrial modes of production, information, transportation and urbanization, especially an alienating division of labor and the proliferation of shock sensations. Yet only in the process of disintegration can the aura be recognized, can it be registered as a qualitative component of (past) experience.[39]

Benjamin further complicates the notion by identifying moments in new mass-media, particularly the cinema, where traces of auratic experience ostensibly still take place, “whether in the cult of the movie star (which ‘preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character’) or in the art film’s more elevated efforts at re-auratization, encapsulated in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and Franz Werfel’s praise for the film,”[40] though it is unclear from the Work of Art essay whether Benjamin characterizes these instances of aura as new prospects of genuine continuation of the unique distancing experience, or, as Hansen condemningly stipulates, “attempts to resurrect [what has been] technologically extinguished.”[41] What is clear is that these instances of the aura have existed well beyond Benjamin’s era of nascent cinema; the cult of the movie star has a well-documented presence in mass culture which has been felt continuously since the silent era. And the art film’s attempts “re-auratization” has resulted in a full-fledged auteurization, a conference of uniqueness and historical specificity upon cinematic events, borne out of the reification of their directors as the unitary, contiguous embodiment of their filmography – the occult fetishization of the artist as genius.[42]

It is here that the assertion of Benjaminian aura as liquidated begins to fall apart. Long after Roland Barthes announced the “death of the author,”[43] mass audiences still choose to distance themselves from the mode of appropriation, still position themselves in the role of worshippers to an occult object. The cinema is a blatant product of technological reproduction, and yet a reifying response recognizes it vestigially as a product Benjamin’s first technology instead, thanks to a little sleight of hand. The modern film is no longer held to be unique as an object, but as an event.[44] To put it another way: the technique by which the film is made relies entirely upon the apparatus of the camera, which is the very metonym of the second technological mode – that of reproduction, of the liquidation of aura, of a decentralized (communist) ideology; but the methods of limited distribution and theatrical presentation surrounding the film still sets it rigidly in the mode of the first technology (in keeping with the process of ideological dialectic as capitalist incentive), which in turn takes power away from the masses as the artist together, to reify through industry an object that has every opportunity to be ubiquitous and conferring aura onto that cinematic object instead as an experience – elevating those involved in its making along the way. Though the medium of film in an inherently reproductive one, both technologies are needed in conjunction with one another to allow film industry (auratic distancing as implemented by its producers), along with film viewership (auratic distancing as implemented by the mass audience), to exist as we know them.

Aura, then, is not simply Benjamin’s “shorthand for the particular qualities of traditional art that he observed waning in modernity,” [45] but a process of venerative distancing – and, for capitalism, commodification – that applies as much to the temporal as it does to the tactile. As the masses demand ever greater proximity to tactile art objects, demystifying their specific power through reproductions, the auratic effect exerts itself in the method by which these reproductions are presented, to the point that, digital media theorist Krzysztof Ziarek notes, “The very process of exhibiting…is part of the artwork itself. The differences between users' experiences, prejudices and preferences, parameters are all part of this art work.”[46] If this is true of all art, it has become especially self-evident in conceptual art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries which has been made mutable, interactive with the audience experiencing it and – particularly in regards to internet-based artwork Ziarek studies, requires the presence audience to complete it, “unfold[ing] as a between, as an event of relating.”[47] One thinks of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror works, which cannot be viewed without the viewer becoming fixed within the image.[48] One thinks of durational art – both the happenings of Allan Kaprow and New York artists in the 1960s, in which “[the] abusive involvement of the audience seems to provide, in default of anything else, the dramatic spine of the Happening,”[49]– as well as performance art, the cinema, the discotheque: technical environments imparting aesthetic spectacle as lived experience, bent upon blending with reality and “colonizing social life,” as Debord warns of immersive commodification.[50]

This dialectic process is already in place, and fuses increasingly with our conception of the aesthetic and singular. By interacting within a work art, making it about the event of its reception, users both aestheticize themselves (often dangerously so) and deaestheticize the work as separate from them, occult. As the work art becomes less removed and less tactile, the aura of reproductive technology becomes less removed and more tactile. It is an aura of atmosphere; an energy the masses inhabit rather than simply revere.[51] The singularity and power becomes one of transmutable lived experience. “If art is alive in the twenty-first century,” Ziarek declares, “it is precisely to the extent to which it is capable, often by employing the latest technologies, as in the Net or transgenic art, of raising technology as a question, perhaps as the question, which allows it to keep open the problem of the technicization of being.”[52]

Photo by Max Fecondini, Wikimedia Commons.

This returns us to the sale and reception of Edmond de Belamy, at Christie’s auction house. It must be reiterated that the painting is a portrait without a referent – a completely technicized fabrication of what has for centuries signified the recognition of a historically or socially significant human being. But here the humanity is apocryphal; even the name, Edmond de Belamy, is a fabrication, the surname utilized to pay homage through translation to the inventor of the Generative Adversarial Net, Ian Goodfellow.[53] Portraiture is one of the oldest and most trenchant forms of visual art, a symbol of considerable social power in the prephotographic age, and in the age of the camera phone one only has to pass through the room in the Louvre containing the Mona Lisa to recognize the way portraiture still exerts occult auratic appeal, which the viewing public appears insatiable to witness, venerate, capture, and reproduce.

That very power of Da Vinci’s portraiture was linked to Edmond de Belamy by the head of Christie’s Prints and Multiples department when he connected the aesthetic conformity of the inkjet print to Salvator Mundi. Yet Belamy produces no aura of occult tactility. Nothing about it speaks of singularity or specific history. It is plainly unoriginal, but that is also not the power the painting exerts. The muddled, cloudy manner in which the portrait is rendered can at first be taken as a generally impressionistic style, but on closer inspection the image falls apart entirely, turning into a series of brushed dots. There is nothing to behold, not even when looking further into the details of the compositional fact, as the portrait reveals its ostensibly oiled tones to be actually an inkjet print. In addition to this is the labor of Obvious themselves, readily acknowledging the complete lack of originality even in the methods of their algorithmic creation, which was acknowledged by other artists within the A.I. realm as formally derivative.

The only anomalistic quality contained by the work was the platform provided by its sale: it was the first A.I.-generated artwork to sell at a major auction house. This constitutes the value of the portrait, disregarding here its middling ability to mimic recognized aesthetic forms. Bidders interested in the portraiture which Obvious imitated could surely buy better-looking art – historical examples this composition was inspired by – and if their interest was instead in algorithmic inkjets, that demand was certainly not limited to only a few artworks generated in this way, as fellow artist Mario Klingemann attests. But only Edmond de Belamywas first to be bid on, and this self-effacing point of importance is precisely what places it within the realm of Duchamp’s ready-mades, as Rolez has noted. “The Obvious collective,” she writes, “seems to be mocking the feeding frenzy which characterizes not only the speculative art market but also the community of technophiles; and there is also an inherently subversive quality in the hint that objects produced by artificial intelligence can take on some of the attributes of the ready-made.”[54]

Actually, it is the first example of an anti-ready-made. Rather than elevating a recognizable, mass-produced object to the ambient signification of the aesthetic realm, Obvious aimed to turn the most recognizable metonym of cultish Victorian aestheticization – the Realist oil portrait – into a mass-produced object. It is art which demands to be recognized as of a certain form and, in doing so, immediately calls attention to the meaninglessness of such classification, subverting the values and strictures aesthetics attempt to place upon the work. The sale of Edmond de Belamy is thus one of the rare examples of the art market working against its traditional function as a site of aesthetic conferral and fetishization, and calls attention to the illusory power of occult objects, their lack of signification, returning that power to its point of origin – the eye of the beholder. But the purchase of the work is still the act which catalyzes this antiauratic critique, and the farcical form of the artwork matched by the seriousness of its final bid make for wincing irony. It is unlikely that the buyer (which we can only construe here as the anonymous mobilization of capital generated by the buyer) paused to consider the ultimately self-defeating dialectic framework out of which this work was wrought before it was time to raise their hand.

The site of the auction-house makes clear that aura of the first technology, occult veneration, is not merely disintegrating, in contrast to the typical reception of the Work of Art essay. Aesthetic events such as this, having passed beyond Benjamin’s persistent ambivalence about the auratic element, come to support this understanding. Aura is, like other forms of energy, never fundamentally lost but simply altered, mutable at times beyond our recognition and consensus. The elements of distancing and relational-identification continue to give artwork weight and power in our time as they did in Benjamin’s time. What differs are the techniques of production, presentation, and distribution – and the technics therein.

Image, Music, Texture

The occult object is increasingly countered today by platitudes of reproduction, but what many readers of Benjamin have failed to recognize is that, when that element of reproduction is itself used as a fundament of derivative production – as with apparatus-based art such as film, photography, and sampled music – an aura may reappear, now manifest in the specificity of the time and place of the artwork’s event. What is so noteworthy about this is the fact that, from art forms composed entirely through mediation, an immediate effect is endowed – one which is auratic without being occult. It is a development which returns the notion of “aura” to its origins in Wolfskehl’s “Lebensluft” essay: a “specific atmosphere” which “every material being radiates;”[55] likewise, it returns our notion of the aesthetic to that of the unacculturated “sensory experience of perception.”[56] This is the aura belonging to the second technology, when this reproductive mode is produced and distributed along the lines of the first, and it is within this practice that the potential of artificial intelligence in the present and future of artistic technique becomes clear. Artificial intelligence – GANs and other neural networks in particular – manifests for the first time the creative possibilities of derivative production across all forms and media.

In the past century, emergent modes of technological reproduction have engendered an aesthetic crisis in regards to content, a crisis mainly of attribution. Because great artworks of the past live on in duplicates, displayed ubiquitously to the masses, these artworks have retained relevance far past their given milieu in time and space, and this – alongside the increasing secularization of content from religious or otherwise occultist practices – has created an increasing need to work outside past notions of content.

In the visual arts, this impetus was met in two major ways, which define and polarize art in the 20th century: either work is created as recreation, its precedents made plain in homage (such as Rauschenberg’s collages, Picasso’s study of Las Meninas,[57] the commodity works of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Kerry James Marshall’s classicist portraits), or the artwork attempts to erase its content altogether, arriving at a place of pure form (such as the AbEx movement of the 1950s, minimalism and the conceptual art which followed it, Vija Celmin’s To Fix the Image in Memory).[58] This formal division is a vivification of the ongoing dialectic of Benjamin’s two technologies, with capitalism stepping in once again to confine both to productive plurality. Peter Schjeldahl identifies it as “a schism, which lasts to this day, between the sphere of the art world which is dominated by dealers and collectors and the one that is administered by institutions of contemporary art. Private money fuels the first, public and philanthropic money the second.”[59]

This crisis of form has reverberations across art of all fields, with variations. The notable modernist work of homage within literature is Ulysses – a pastiche of content ranging from Homer’s Odyssey through the major romantic styles of the 18th century. In doing so, it performs “the notion of a plagiaristic wandering among signifiers – of the writer as a kind of switchboard picking up voices from all over,”[60] and appears to be the primary metonym on hand of a “neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away” – the definition Roland Barthes gives to writing in “The Death of the Author.”[61] But because literature as a medium is so dependent on recognizable signifiers, here the act of homage is very close to pure form – Ulysses is still considered a work of formal “experimentalism”[62]–  and the commercial schism actually cleaves around the act of acknowledgement and remembrance of the artist’s technical influences (which is, in language, far easier to mask than in visual imagery) as opposed to a continual forgetting favorable to the market. The author is still very much alive within the realm of commercial literature, and the repertoire of formal techniques employed in such are commended by critics as unique of “style” – despite widespread critical acknowledgement that, as Susan Sontag puts it, “An artist’s style is, from a technical point of view, nothing other than the particular idiom in which he deploys the forms of his art.”[63] The commercial author is still praised or disparaged for their “voice,” as if that voice were unique to them.[64]

In the temporal art forms, such as film, music, and theater, both the event-based specificity endemic to these forms and an appetite for reprisal felt within spectatorship allow for the seemingly endless recycling of narratives – adaptations, revivals, sequels – which have today reached fever pitch as the epitome of the current crisis of content. That vast audiences have an unsated appetite for these reproductions (which often pass themselves off for new with only so much as a gloss on their technical underpinnings) makes plain how deeply the liberative reproductive mode remains in thrall to a commodity-oriented system of production and distribution. Even as capitalism recognizes reproduction and mass-proliferation to be superior technologies for social engagement and cultural affect, the discourse surrounding these technologies can only be one of singularity, of novelty, of momentousness. Debord presents the ironic nature of the spectacle: “Each new product is ceremoniously acclaimed as a unique creation offering a dramatic shortcut to the promised land of total consummation. But…the objects that promise uniqueness can be offered up for mass consumption only if they have been mass-produced.”[65] At the same time, the capitalistic processes by which these reproductions are anticipated, experiences, reified, and imitated are implicitly and profoundly collective ones, a hermeneutics belonging starkly to the masses.

This social experience now has an algorithmic counterpart, a computational network which can itself imitate the network of imitation and conferral within a given social sphere. This is the aesthetic implication of the neural network, specifically the Generative Adversarial Net (GAN), a class of machine learning systems which, when given a sample of data, can create data compositionally similar to it – the tool by which Obvious produced Edmond de Belamy.[66] Created in 2014 by Ian Goodfellow, GANs are a very recent technological development with vast implications for the creation, as well as the reception, of art. As Goodfellow puts it,

“The promise of deep learning is to discover rich, hierarchical models that      represent probability distributions over the kinds of data encountered in         artificial intelligence applications, such as natural images, audio waveforms containing speech, and symbols in natural language corpora. So far, the most striking successes in deep learning have involved discriminative models, usually those that map a high-dimensional, rich sensory input to a class label”[67]

– in layman’s terms, models which are capable of classifying data very specifically across of a matrix of recognizable qualities. Because GANs work by classifying a given data field into a statistical set, then producing new contributions to that data field which fall within that set, these neural networks have potential (dependent upon the specificity and nuance of their statistical classification) to render the unique and singular qualities of any given work of art irrelevant, and in doing so to unmake or override the occult aura of that work beyond the limits of simple reproduction. Rather than just copying a given work of art, endlessly varying derivations emerge from within its corner of aesthetic realm, clouding the field with spectral duplicates until the originality of the original is rendered indiscernible or irrelevant. The goal of the “game” Goodfellow sets up between two computers is to make it so that the discerning element is unable to tell which samples were artificially generated; up until now that discerning element has been the audience.

GANs and other neural networks are already playing a major role in our society in non-aesthetic realms, although in doing so they parallel the reproductive modes of aesthetic conferral which modernism has placed on artistic objects in the past century. Deepfakes, audiovisual synthesis, and the replication of images are turning media which occupy a functional role into sites of contested value – undermining the authenticity of a given statement, say, or modifying a politically relevant image. Joshua Rothman writes in The New Yorker, “The emerging world of ‘synthetic media,’ the work of digital-image creation—once the domain of highly skilled programmers and Hollywood special-effects artists—could be automated by expert systems capable of producing realism on a vast scale…In a media environment saturated with fake news, such technology has disturbing implications.”[68] He goes on to quote photo-forensics expert Hani Farid, who is facing increasing difficulty in determining the authenticity of images used as evidence: “‘In the past, anybody could buy Photoshop. But to really use it well you had to be highly skilled…Now the technology is democratizing.’”[69]

In the realm of artificial intelligence, we stand to witness the final collapse of the separation between art and life, the intention of the former correcting the randomness of the latter to disrupt the purported significance of both. Media have so deeply saturated the shocked sense-consciousness of the modern individual that the primarily metaphorical qualities endemic to it are forgotten. In this way, it is continually mistaken for truth, in the Nietzschian sense of such misrecognition.[70] It is only a matter of time before GANs and other neural networks become widely recognized tools of artistic production. After all, they only further the elements of infinite reproducibility and modification which have been prevalent in artistic practice for the past century, and to a lesser extent the centuries before that.

All of this results in the formation of certain aesthetic textures. It appears inevtiable that the result of GAN-generated artwork, as with the use of GANs in any form, is the identification of many textures (the data sorted into the matrices of Goodfellow’s “class labels”), and the dominance of some. “Texture synthesis,” as computer scientist Alexei Efros describes it, is “a method for intelligently sampling bits of an image and probabilistically recombining them so that a texture could be indefinitely and organically extended.”[71] This is the technology behind auto-complete, Adobe Photoshop’s “content-aware fill,” and in Rothman’s article Efros goes on to explain “that the same techniques used to create synthetic stonework or text messages could also be used to create synthetic video. The key [is] to think of movement—the flickering of a candle flame, the strides of a man on a treadmill, the particular way a face changed as it smiled—as a texture in time.”[72] In texture, the original qualities of a given work or object are quantified and extended ad infinitum, so that their techniques are distilled to generic application. This is the destruction of singularity, of rarefication in every respect, taking place through the proliferation of certain singular qualities until they become ubiquitous. The brushstrokes of a painting may be reproduced as texture to wallpaper a room. But this same mechanism can be applied to the room itself, to the entire environment of, for instance, a delicately curated museum wing. The sensuousness of those curatorial choices, the aesthetic hierarchies latent behind them – these too can become texture, applied in a virtual reality environment to create a museum which never ends, an infinite sensibility.

Specific yet ubiquitous, textures as they are applied today disregard the origin of their data in pursuit of their function as a performed role – the terms of a product meeting a market demand. Jeff Koons has reproduced paintings by Boucher, Da Vinci, Fragonard, Gaugin, Manet, Monet, Poussin, Rubens, Titian, Turner, and Van Gogh into textures, which have been applied wantonly to the exteriors of variously sized Louis Vuitton handbags.[73] The value of the original works is transmogrified into a bulwark of the value of the bags, as if by imitating unique and highly conferred art objects they may themselves become singular, their nature as mass-produced functional equipment masked by texture. Here is Debord’s irony of spectacle again, now applied to the commodity. Any lineage granted to the specific object is lost in the pure multiplicity of its copies, and its extensions – the aura of its specific import entirely atomized. This is a hyperextension of Benjamin’s concept of the reproduced artwork: an aesthetic entirely without aesthetic value, observing only the functional element of a decorative tool. The term ‘texture’ serves this mode uniquely well.

Texture is the best way of understanding the capitalistic functioning of artistic production in its own right. Again, this mode is itself merely dialectic play, between diametrically opposed fascistic and communistic technologies, but in texture – and specifically in the attributes of mechanical reproduction which makes art as texture possible – we see the capitalist system work in a way which organically frustrates both modes, extending beyond the gravitational pull of both values. Artwork in this sense only pretends its specific value, its occult status in the fascist sense of exclusive reverence, and pretension, in the capitalist milieu, is the act of performing recognition of this false specialness, an attempt to kindle exclusivity around a work which may mask it for what it is – an opportunity for texture. But texture, masked or unmasked, is anodyne; the politicization of a work as a possibly radical social instigator becomes displaced in its proliferation across commodified environments, so that its political value may only be ascertained by the service provides in normalizing the capitalistic status quo. This is not the politicization of art in Benjamin’s Marxist identification.[74] Here, reproduction effectively neutralizes incendiary art through dispersal and application. Reproduction becomes an opportunity solely for amassing wealth, not for a single individual entity but for a parasitic industry, which expands and dilates around the supply of commodified artistic styles made generic.

It is possible even now to recognize the labor chains which remember our most popularized artists today – Warhol, Da Vinci, Picasso, Haring, et al. – as cottage industries seeking to further proliferate these artists’ works, and make money doing so, though endless series of facsimiles, screen-prints, collaborations and pastiches. Piet Mondrian’s De Stijl color-blocking has become a tool so integrated with the design industry, at all calibers, that any auratic effect which the artist ostensibly authored was lost decades ago. Mondrian’s work needs no nameplate next to it denoting it is his, but his style is just as likely to be seen in dutiful pastiche on the side of a coffee mug or a t shirt as it is in an art gallery, a retroactive metonym for the clean, compartmentalized ideals of the technocratic present. Alain Dujardin writes in Wired that:

“When we, designers and producers of digital products, look at a painting by Theo van Doesburg—say, Rhythm of a Russian Dance, it almost feels like coming home: a simplified, minimalist approach to composition that matches so perfectly with contemporary digital design. Stripped to the absolute bare necessities, the artists of De Stijl promoted a design reminiscent of the contemporary web, with clean lines, solid colors, and simplicity.”[75]

The original works, when placed back in the art gallery or museum setting, no longer offer an auratic distancing, as they have no defining qualities which offset them as historical objects in the wake of a textural accumulation which has transposed them into the functional present. Rather, the effect they provoke is merely a thrill of commodity fetishism – of having seen the style out in the world across a smattering of utilitarian objects, style manifested by industry – as if one is recognizing a brand.

To create a truly unique personal style is eventual goal of many artists, and to depersonalize this style through commodification is the goal of aesthetic capitalism. The hermeneutic process which allows for this building up and breaking down of stylistic integrity revolves around individual qualities of repeated detail, which, in aggregate, form a coherent statistical set – the ideal circumstances by which artificial intelligence can function. Because it mechanizes the very role of conceptualization and creative output within the work of art to a kind of derivative generation (such as the fed sampling of GANs) all production under artificial intelligence becomes derived production. There can be no new material, if the function of the neural network is simply to recognize a matrix of qualities and generate new works within that matrix. Therefore, there can be no distancing specificity, or occult singularity, to any of these works.

As described above, art as texture is a potentiality in visual art which has already been realized proactively in certain capacities, simply through human intelligence recognizing and furthering statistical sets. The proliferation of De Stijl took place before artificial intelligence came along and predicts it across industry and time, through a historically specific process of recognition and reproduction. GANs and other neural networks have the possibility of automating this process, and thereby transcoding the much more diffuse, less immediately recognizable elements of style which exist variously across art forms, such as within literature. On Twitter, there are already “corpus-fed bots” which break up the writing of Melville, Joyce, or Anne Carson into randomly selected tweetable patterns.[76] The Hemingway App applies the corpus of that author into a set of general rules – e.g. the elimination of adverbs and passive voice – and offers this program as an editing service, to modify all writing to this style.[77] By refining Hemingway’s work into a matrix of class labels, the program undoes the writer’s own work, as co-creator Ben Long admits: “If you plug in Ernest Hemingway's writing, you'll see that he breaks the rules all the time.”[78] That this derivative, mechanical process of synthetic style has real-world implications on the rhetorical output of its users is a given, but the program’s metrics supersede even its authoring body; as NPR journalist Liston Weeks notes, speaking, it seems, from a depersonalized opinion, “We think the Hemingway App made the prose of Ernest Hemingway better prose.”[79]

In this way, digital realm as archive shows itself to be just as important as computing power itself. That computational power of a magnitude to resemble and replicate human thought now exists is world-altering, but the ability of these computers to access the full flood of the Internet – and pre-digital documents of stature uploaded to it – makes possible an artificial intelligence which imposes itself as singular consciousness, containing the entire human species’ collective consciousness. This has a remarkable effect specifically in the makeup of GANs, which require a typically large sample size of data to create a new, coherent work which stylistically matches it. The connectivity of the Internet allows GANs to sample from a supply of influences which cannot be replicated by a single human perspective. With increasing permeation of the boundaries between the physical and digital realms comes a subsequent permeation between art and life. And the increased dissolution of spatiality in the physical realm, fostered by digital communication, corresponds to a dissolution of temporality in the aesthetic realm. All styles as texture are functionally present.

No longer does the degradation of temporal specificity affect certain artworks, corresponding with their reproductive capacity. Rather, all works are equally susceptible to an exertion of the digital archive’s previously unknown power to retain relevance. The conditions which foster such recognition are precisely those of market demand, which in turn respond to the presentation and recognition of certain styles as readily available for mass-consumption. A given historical era no longer corresponds to a particular style, as they have previously for the duration of creative production. If the “central dogma” of modernism is “the idea that art must evolve,” conceptualized in the pervasive “paramilitary imagery of avant-garde and arrière-garde,”[80] then in digital postmodernism the metaphor of the avant-garde, doubles back on itself, attacking its own army in a gratuitous feedback loop, which gradually muddies every sect and movement within the vertiginous history of art into mutable, stylistic hybrids. This is the greatest capacity of art as texture: aesthetic entropy. It is also a reminder (as we will see in the moments when Dada touches Brutalism, say, or Fauvism becomes Gothic) that mutation of given forms dilutes the political presence they were initially imbued with.

“The ambivalence of this historical moment manifests itself in the fact that the instant of art's 'liberation' from the strictures of its aesthetic formation coincides with the possible disappearance of art's distinctiveness and its progressive merger with technology. This eventuality is often read in the context of the avant-garde as the end of the separation between art and everyday life,” Ziarek writes.[81] In reproducing the work algorithmically, the reproducer is quoting it, and the onus is on the reproductive entity itself to decide whether to preserve the context which the content was ushered into, to “dupe” it ironically, or to ignore it altogether. Often, maintaining the dignity and social connectivity the artwork originally offered is more work than not, and goes against the new forms this content may take in reproduction. The deepest preoccupations of the past can come to seem like trivialities in the present, and the eternal present of the archive renders all preoccupations the triviality of a shared stage. Into texture disappears all indications of specificity, as the past is recycled into an assimilated future. The threat texture poses to art, as it does with all forms of political expression, is epitomized in its ability to make anything and everything banal.

Toward Selection

All this is not to say that art is resigned to the fate of banality, any more than human consciousness is conscripted to complete technicization. If the fundamental dialectic of Benjamin’s work is the relationship between technology and nature, then the subaltern potentiality of technology as interlocutor between nature and humanity – instead of master of both – still resonates for us.[82]

In the past century alone, art forms which have become more prominently apparatus-based have moved toward integrated modes of production which foreground a kind of selective texture. This mode of artistic craft has only a passing preoccupation with originality in a world that now accommodates and archives everything under the sun, but represents an organic form of derivative production, one which still places a human individual in the role of producer, as opposed to Obvious’ neural network. Here, the main focus of artistic production is through the selection, curation and juxtaposition of diffuse, recognizable textures, by which the artist herself acts as an alternative to algorithm, accessing the totality of the digital realm and sampling from it with deliberate disregard to the compartmentalization of Goodfellow’s “class labels,” selecting instead based on the perspective of one’s specific history, and with a sensitivity towards the unique time and place in which the work will be presented. In this selective mode, artificial intelligence is contained outside of its role as collective consciousness, and returns to an apparatus of subjective representation.

The epitome of the selective mode as it exists now is the work of the DJ, and the environment of the discotheque, both of which have been largely neglected from contemporary functional analyses of art. This is particularly due to the elements intrinsic to music as a medium, which have made it so popular and readily accessible – particularly the form of the mp3, which has “occupied center stage in the world of digital audio formats,” according to Jonathan Sterne, who has in turn documented the ways in which this filing apparatus “emphasizes distraction over attention and exchange over use.”[83] Such technology has primed DJs and other samplers to exhibit textural programming and selection in advance of the computational tools that now stand to change all subsequent art forms. It is the form most suited to explore the intricacies and possibilities of mechanical reproduction today, and such exploration has been taking place in the club and rave scenes for decades. The result of this, significantly, is a highlighting and reifying of the arbitrary, the recontextualizing of a historicized object into the immediacy of the performance event.

Music sampling, like the cinema when it was first advanced, was not immediately recognized as an art form proper, as it was born out of a market for entertainment and aimed to capitalize directly on this. As with film, the proliferation of this market itself allowed for a multiplicity of styles emerge which demanded to be taken seriously as more than just utilitarian. DJing has existed as a vocation since “the turntablist experiments of Grandmaster Flash and Christian Marclay” of the 1970s,[84] which relied on the physical assemblage from the limited selection of the DJ’s personal record collection, but still the art form feels very new thanks to its “inexhaustible potential for reuse,” sampling (détournement, in the words of Debord) allows.[85] These selective sound experiences increasingly arrive – particularly in the period of time since song selection has moved into the digital realm – in the form of “radical juxtaposition,”[86] layered with or on top of generally cohesive, repetitive beats. It is not uncommon these days for selectors playing queer nightclubs in Brooklyn to decorate a predictable progression with a recording of a speech by a homophobic public figure,[87] or for the resident DJ of a rave space in Prague to end his set with a Dirty South deep cut.[88]

This is, in short, because audio recordings are sensory material uniquely conducive to transportability and adaptability – a recorded song has among the smallest byte size of any viable artistic reproduction to traffic as data within the digital sphere – as well as the fact that music is the medium most conducive to instantly relatable variances in genre and tone.[89] These recognitions become points of engagement when put into radical juxtaposition with one another, and in doing so become the best embodiment yet of what textural feedback looks like when enacted creatively. Genres, movements, and the intent which imbues them are indiscriminately mixed on the turntables, for an effect which intends to move the listener whether or not they recognize the referent. The cohesive tone of these sets themselves, a composite of the music they sample, ranges dialectically across a spectrum between distinctly utopian and ironizing polarities. It is, in short, a wholly new form of mechanical reproduction, a form Theodor Adorno identified as “synthesis, the self-production of the work”[90]– an original production that is immediate, unique, and composed of entirely reproduced material. The revolutionary apparatus for this mode is, naturally, the synthesizer, in the sense that the particular sounds the key make are mutable, set only by the variations they have with relation to the other keys.

The experiential, atmospheric qualities created by artistic synthesis are themselves quite remarkable, as they are indexical to the newly synthetic art form itself. As anyone familiar with DJed environments knows, recording and documentation is strongly discouraged worldwide, both by the show runners and other spectators. This is ostensibly to allow for a greater feeling of openness by the participants, as well as to disrupt law enforcement surveillance, but the very recognition of these factors implies an environment of convergent energy and activity very unlike the typically passive viewing experience other experiential art forms imbue. The strong sense emerges that everyone in the environment is responsible for the condition of one another’s reception of the set, tied directly to the fact that the DJ is creating something never before heard, and never to be replicated, in front of them. The event is special, private, often secreted; however, it never achieves the condition of Benjamin’s occult, auratic art, because nothing new is being ‘made’ in the space which – if it was itself recorded or processed – could then be extracted from the environment and emplaced somewhere else.

Recording or otherwise reproducing a rave inevitably falls short of it; the organic quality dissembles into its inorganic materials. The immediate event, when mediated, brings forth only other media – a series of diachronic sounds, each one identifiable and obtainable in the exact rendition which the DJ herself originally possessed to select them. By recording the set, one has no sense of the experience itself, only a testimony of the DJ’s curation and mixing. Because the apparatus foregrounds previously existent media, the assemblage of the set itself becomes both immediate and inimitable, while a recording of the set dissolves into merely the extant music once again – at best a description of the set, a crude rendering by even the most faithful of reproductive device. That such crudity is possible within the world of texturized aesthetics today – where indistinguishable renderings of artistic creations across mediums have become the hallmark of our era – allows us to imagine the ways that artistic reproduction, once totally synthesized into the act of artistic production, may reanimate the latter’s auratic power.

Wolfgang Tillmans, the digital photographer, is an early example of synthesis as production within a medium outside of the auditory – though it is no mistake that he got his start “in the early nineteen-nineties…chronicl[ing] Gen X and rave culture.”[91] Tillmans “carries a small snapshot camera so that he can be open to ‘the gift of chance’” and constantly photographs anything in his day which strikes him as interesting – an artistry with a prerequisite in the digital sphere as archive; in Emily Witt’s New Yorker profile, Tillmans method of photography is “casual and barely noticeable, often in motion.”[92] His photographs have no sense of cohesion in terms of the rendered quality of the image; when displayed in a gallery space, they can be as small as a postage stamp or fill a whole wall, and his curated environments are stridently extemporal. He is a photographer who thinks constantly not only of the image, but the form on which it is being presented, placing “magazine pages next to printed photographs and inkjet prints, clustering unframed pictures of different sizes.”[93]

Tillmans differs from nearly all contemporary photographers in that he oversees the curation, arrangement, and art handling of all of his own work, with exact specifications. This makes him more than a photographer; as Witt describes it, “The installations [are] themselves compositions.”[94] His photos may be arranged around a recognizable theme, but often they are juxtaposed in a way which are endemic to the artist’s sensibility at the moment of layout – either an intentional mental link or a whim. Intensely public images (protests, security checkpoints) collide with intensely private ones (raves, genitals, sleeping positions), alongside ambient ones (empty rooms, ocean surfaces, textures in the traditional sense) in radical juxtaposition. [95] No narrative is implied besides the artist’s own, and yet Tillman clearly arranges his exhibitions not as a narrator, but as a conduit for a multitude of experiences and perspectives, captured in the visual realm with cautious attention to the falsity of his method of mediation. He is committed to investigating the epistemological underpinnings of his work. He often includes “arrangements in his exhibitions of what he called ‘truth-study tables’—collections of articles and images that documented his process of ‘observing how I observe.”[96]

Tillmans implies a way forward for art in a world in which all creative content now has its requisite as referent, where nothing need be created because everything already exists. Art which can fully synthesize the apparatus and archive we are all now burdened with in the digitally enmeshed physical world is, and can only be, an art of selection. It matters less if this selection is from a personal archive or the collective archive of the internet; what is foregrounded is the ontology of the selective process as reconstitutive organism, as method of representing the world, and in turn displaying an epistemological awareness of said representation’s artifice. In this respect, three major revelations of synthetic production emerge: the priorities and hierarchies of the selector become the formal techniques of such production, the objects said selector produces are inherently environmental and experiential, and these environments are experienced directly and collectively by the audience as platforms for consuming media. Tillmans’ work retains and foregrounds these qualities, and stands alongside rave spaces as proof of a pattern by which to theorize derivative production: if derivative production allows for the synthesis of inorganic media into original forms, these forms will move increasingly toward selection as the fundament of artmaking.

“Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017,” installation view, Tate Modern, London, February 15 to June 11, 2017. Courtesy David Zwirner

The danger of artificial intelligence is that, because its sample range extends beyond the knowledge base of any human individual, it may be mistaken for an objective rendering of certain value systems. It is an epistemological fallacy that a mechanism crafted by humans around the subjectivity of designed problem-setting may be mistaken, in its scope and modeling, for providing an objective or inevitable outcome. This fallacy is already being applied on a day-to-day basis, in commercial marketing and online data analytics, for the purported belief of delivering to consumers what they want before they know it, based on recognizable habits and tendencies. This is, for Adorno, the condition upon which an enlightened society dies. “Debasement itself would not be possible if resistance ensued,” he writes, “if the [users] still had the capacity to make demands beyond the limits of what was supplied.”[97]

Art must take up this mantle, as it always has, to provide alternatives to homogenous value-systems and epistemologies, to reject widely conferred aesthetic options and false binaries – in short, to imagine alternative realities than those which are taken for granted as real. What is new about this is the primarily digital arena in which this ordering of stimuli plays out, as data, and the reliance upon the technical apparatuses on hand to support or subvert these homogenies. Rolez observes, in her study of Edmond de Bellamy, that “There is an obvious potency in enticing the machine to reveal its subversive and/or comic nature.”[98] Digital technologies of the recent past have been created and disseminated with immense collectivizing power, but their functions are decidedly capitalistic. It is the duty of the artist to remind us that mechanisms have many functions, and the purported value they exert can be easily reconstituted for other ideologies.[99]

Benjamin theorizes this role of the artist in an essay which predicts the task of the author as a role of primarily synthesizing existent media. In “The Author as Producer,” he writes of the ideological conditions an artist may express simply in the form of their work. Benjamin writes, “The place of the intellectual in the class struggle can be identified – or, better, chosen – only on the basis of his position in the process of production.”[100] This is, of course, Tillman’s role in hanging his own work, the DJ’s role in prioritizing “safe spaces” for dancing over those which may provide greater exposure or incentive for capital gain.[101] “Only by transcending the specialization in the process of intellectual production,” Benjamin declares, “a specialization that, in the bourgeois view, constitutes its order – can one make this production politically useful; and the barriers imposed by specialization must be breached jointly by the productive forces that they were set up to divide.”[102] Tying this idea directly to the dialectic of his two technologies – occult and reproductive – Benjamin predictively characterizes the position artists are now in at the point of synthesis, if not the deconstructed, atmospheric aura which exudes from the synthetic event: “What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. As this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators into collaborators…The more exactly [the artist] is thus informed about his position in the process of production, the less it will occur to him to lay claim to ‘spiritual’ qualities.”[103]

The radical significance of the Work of Art essay resides in Benjamin’s early understanding of the necessary divestment from “spiritual qualities” in the work of artists, and the concurrent secularism already emerging on behalf of the viewing masses. The process by which works of art could undo their auratic power as objects and return to the world of signifiers and mechanisms for their own structuring was the process of mechanical reproduction of these artworks. By becoming mutable, atomized in their placement in newspapers, on postcards, clothing, and screens, the art object’s aura is concurrently atomized, the historical and material specificity of the object reduced – the hand which created it reconfigured as adept producer, rather than biblical progenitor. This was for Benjamin a positive dialectic progression away from the occult experience, and was itself evident of the mode of the second technology, that of mass reproduction, which redistributed the power of human relations back to the world around them. The relationship to nature thus changes, as Benjamin notes: “The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity.”[104]

The full extension of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility” was to better understand how the dialectic relationship between the singular and the reproducible would affect consciousness on a human level – it’s nascent potential to distract, inform, and ultimately free us from the capitalistic mode. What the theorist was likely least able to anticipate was the ongoing stalemate between these two modes: the longevity of capitalism as a system that both confers and destroys the aura upon the object, recycling vestigial structures into new fashion. We are at this point in the throes of the endurance of a mode of power based on continuous unsystematic redistribution, and this plays out in a plurality of forms which today contributes to the paradoxical and absurd harmony between functionaries of fascistic/auratic power (e.g. the Christie’s auction-house) and communistic/distributed power (e.g. the Obvious collective).

With the rise of artificial intelligence, we are on the precipice of a new age of aesthetic mutation, in which the work of art not only atomizes from the singular object of unique value into the ubiquity of the automatic copy (a recasting of form), but in which the role of production, distribution, and reception of these works may themselves become automated, turning all art objects into aesthetic events, distanced regard into atmospheric environment, and passive audience into interactive users. This is, in many respects, a step forward for Benjamin’s Marxist theory of participation, and the concurrent permeation of regimented division which is the mark of the bourgeois apparatus. At the same time, derivative production is simply another layer of representation and aesthetic metonym upon which the human consciousness may become distracted from immediate reality, to the point of reliance upon the illusory, as Feuerbach feared. This is the potentiality of modernism symptomized by the consciousness of distractive shock, and the danger of it seems ever greater with the emergent belief that artificial intelligence may present us, through mediation, with a reality more objective than our own – a technicized consciousness.

While modern shock upon the human sensorium continues to be exposed and evaluated, artist-producers have emerged which allow us to imagine alternatives to contemporary processes which successively foreground the technofuturist perspective as verified and just. Rather than divesting from technologies which affect human consciousness, artists are devising alternative functions for them, and deploying mechanisms which undermine hegemonic, capitalist value-systems. “If you look back from this vantage point on the recasting of literary forms that I spoke of earlier,” declared Benjamin, referring to the liquidation of generic and stylistic consecrations that were already taking place in his time, “you can see how photography and music, and whatever else occurs to you, are entering the growing, molten mass from which the new forms are cast. You will find this confirmed: only the literarization of all the conditions of life provides an accurate conception of the range of this melting-down process, just as the state of the class struggle determines the temperature at which – more or less perfectly – it is accomplished.”[105]

The role of the artist in this time must be to imagine alternative strategies for technicization which restore humanity’s harmony with nature, collapse the hierarchical space between artist and audience, and subvert the objectifying epistemology imposed by artificial intelligence upon the masses. The solution, then, is not to ignore technicization but to master it, and subvert the prevalent uses for it into those of more radical will.

The paradox Benjamin articulated in his work was this: the only way to get ‘closer’ to something, as the masses wish to do with all experiences of modernity, is to mediate it. This irony has led to an unimaginable surplus of images and objects demanding attention, the induction of surfaces by which we navigate essence. While technology has empowered the average user more fully within a given system, this power is undone by the increasing complication of the given systems one is placed within. This is a quality inseparable from the role of technology within the capitalist mode, as both are systems which allow anyone with enough will to power to alter them, expand them, create detours and distractions by which attention may induce profit. This quality is testament to the insuperable neutrality of technology as a tool of political consciousness. It is the labyrinth we have wrought and thus trapped ourselves in, and its expansion will not facilitate an easier exit.

[1] Cohn, Gabe. “AI Art at Christie’s Sells for $432,500.” The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2018, Accessed 2 Sept. 2019.

[2] ---. “Up for Bid, AI Art Signed ‘Algorithm.’” The New York Times, 22 Oct. 2018, Accessed 2 Sept. 2019.

[3] “Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), Salvator Mundi.” Christies.Com, 2017, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

[4] “Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy.” Christies.Com, 2018, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019. 

[5] Cohn, “Up for Bid, AI Art Signed ‘Algorithm,’” para. 3.

[6] Ibid., para. 3.

[7] Rolez, Anaïs. “The Mechanical Art of Laughter.” Arts, vol. 8, no. 1, 21 Dec. 2018, p.2, 10.3390/arts8010002. Accessed 2 Sept. 2019.

[8] Vincent, James. “How Three French Students Used Borrowed Code to Put the First AI Portrait in Christie’s.” The Verge, The Verge, 23 Oct. 2018, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019, para. 2.

[9] Ibid., para. 11.

[10] Cohn, “Up for Bid, AI Art Signed ‘Algorithm,’” para. 7.

[11] Cohn, “AI Art at Christie’s Sells for $432,500,” para. 1.

[12] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. pp. 19-55. Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al. Translated by Edmond Jephcott et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 31 May 2008. I will refer to this in text and footnotes simply as “Work of Art” or the Work of Art essay.

[13] Hansen, Miriam. “Actuality, Antinomies,” Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012, p. 75.

[14] Hansen locates the relationship to these positions not just as mutually inclusive, but as made manifest by the other’s refutation: “The problem Benjamin recognized is that each position contains within itself another antinomic structure whose elements combine with those of its opposite in either more or less destructive ways.” (Actualities, Antinomies, 83). This is the standpoint toward dialectics which this essay adopts.

[15] Benjamin, “The Newspaper.” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. pp. 359-360. Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al. Translated by Edmond Jephcott et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 31 May 2008, p. 359.

[16] Hansen, “Actualities, Antimonies,” p. 75.

[17] Qtd. in Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, Michigan, Black & Red, 2016, p. ii.

[18] Hansen, “Actualities, Antimonies,” p. 79.

[19] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.” October, vol. 62, 1992, pp. 3–41, 10.2307/778700. Accessed 30 Nov. 2019, p. 16.

[20] Benjamin, “Work of Art,” p. 42

[21] Ibid., p. 42

[22] The secondary dialectic, less political and more essentialist, places humanity and nature in the field of technological usage. This is tied explicitly into the fascist/communist dialectic by connecting the two types of technologies each employs to shift human consciousness – reproduction versus the occult. Benjamin: “The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity” (“Work of Art,” p. 26).

[23] “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe.” Guggenheim.Org, 2014, Accessed 2 Dec. 2019.

[24] “Un Film Comme Les Autres.” Metrograph.Com, 2019, Accessed 2 Dec. 2019.

[25] Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author,” Image, Music, Text: Essays, pp. 142-154. London, Fontana, 1990, p. 148.

[26] The metonym Benjamin uses here are those of direct, but non-specific religious imagery: “Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain images of the Madonna remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are not visible to the viewer at ground level” (“Work of Art,” 25).

[27] Benjamin: “Prehistoric art made use of certain fixed notations in the service of magical practice…The subjects for these notations were humans and their environment, which were depicted according to the requirements of a society whose technology existed only in fusion with ritual. Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this technology was undeveloped. But from a dialectical standpoint, the disparity is unimportant. What matters is the way the orientation and aims of that technology differ from those of ours. Whereas the former made the maximum possible use of human beings, the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew” (“Work of Art,” p. 26).

[28] Buck-Morss writes extensively about the “acculturation of the senses” as affecting the definition and an understanding of the very meaning of aesthetics over time, in what can be clearly seen as a development of the consolidation of power away from the average viewer to that of the knowing viewer. “The original field of aesthetics is not art but reality – corporeal, material, natural,” she writes, noting that “Aisthitikos is the ancient Greek word for that which is ‘perceptive by feeling.’ Aisthisis is the sensory experience of perception” (“Aesthetics and Anaesthetics,” p. 6). The original Greek sense of this perception was lost over the course of Western philosophical developments beginning with Kantian ontology, as she details in her essay. “All of the senses can be acculturated – that is the whole point of philosophical interest in ‘aesthetics’ in the modern era” (p. 6). The reversal of this fact, due to the proliferation of the art object in the hands of the masses as reproductions, is a restoration of aesthetics in the original sense of unacculturated perception.

[29] Benjamin writes about the advent of this new sensibility as it has already taken place in the cinema: “It is inherent in the technology of film, as of sports, that everyone who witnesses these performances does so as a quasi-expert” (“Work of Art,” 33), and later – “The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is criticized with aversion. Not so in the cinema. The decisive reason for this is that nowhere more than in the cinema are the reactions of individuals, which together make up the massive reaction of the audience, determined by the imminent concentration of reactions into a mass” (36).

[30] The exception here is perhaps only “public art” – typically, sculptures commissioned for designated public spaces. But even the public spaces are themselves subject to privatization, increasingly so in this given moment. We are in what art critic Jerry Saltz calls “an age when public space seems more and more turned by developers into private arcades for the privileged.” (Saltz, Jerry. “New York Has Solved the Problem of Public Art. But at What Cost?” Vulture, Vulture, 17 Dec. 2015, Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.)

[31] A contemporary example of this can be found in the contested value of the work of artist Larry Poons in the 2018 documentary The Price of Everything. (Kahn, Nathaniel. “The Price of Everything.” HBO, 15 Nov. 2018, Accessed 28 Oct. 2018.)

[32] Peter Zusi notes that “The term ‘aura’ may be Benjamin’s, but the idea of its vanishing is not… As Jürgen Habermas pointed out, ‘Hegel already announced the loss of aura in his Lectures on Aesthetics” (Zusi, Peter. “Vanishing Points: Benjamin and Teige on the Liquidations of Aura.” Modern Language Review 108.2 (2013): 368-95, Modern Humanities Research Association, Apr. 2013. Accessed 19 Nov. 2019, pp. 368-369).

[33] Hansen “put[s] into question the liquidationist tenor of the essay (especially in its familiar third, 1939 version)—and, by implication, the facile reproduction of this tenor in the essay’s standard reception” (“Actualities, Antinomies,” p. 83, emphasis mine), noting that “Benjamin’s positions on film and mass-mediated modernity cannot be reduced to the antinomy of “liquidationist” versus “culturally conservative,” nor to the antinomic opposition of “distraction” versus “destruction”…The problem Benjamin recognized is that each position contains within itself another antinomic structure whose elements combine with those of its opposite in either more or less destructive ways. The most disastrous combination was currently pioneered by fascism, while alternative possibilities were eroded, in different ways, in the liberal capitalist media and Stalinist cultural politics” (p. 82).

[34] “Work of Art,” p. 34.

[35] Ibid., p. 34.

[36] Hansen, Miriam. “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology.’” New German Critique, no. 40, 1987, pp. 179–224. JSTOR,, 10.2307/488138. Accessed 15 Dec. 2019, p. 188. Hansen establishes in another essay on this subject that “Benjamin’s first comment on the concept of aura can be found in an unpublished report on one of his hashish experiments, dated March 1930: ‘Everything I said on the subject [the nature of aura] was directed polemically against the theosophists, whose inexperience and ignorance I find highly repugnant. . . First, genuine aura appears in all things, not just in certain things, as people imagine.’ This assertion contrasts sharply with the common understanding of Benjamin’s aura as a primarily aesthetic category.” (Hansen, Miriam. “Aura, the Appropriation of a Concept,” pp. 104-131, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012, p. 104.)

[37] “Work of Art,” p. 23

[38] “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,’” p. 187

[39] Ibid., p. 189

[40] “Actualities, Antinomies,” p. 88.

[41] Ibid, p. 88.

[42] Film critic Richard Brody clarifies this mentality: “the best of Hollywood directors are the equals of great directors anywhere in the world, and…they are the equals of painters, writers, and composers of genius.” (Brody, Richard. “Andrew Sarris and the ‘A’ Word.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 2017. Accessed 27 May 2019, para. 1.)

[43] “Death of the Author,” p. 142. Barthes declares in the same essay, “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (p. 142). His assignation of the actualization of meaning entirely to the reader is the exact opposite of auratic distancing, the very activation of the mass audience’s desired proximity and the decentralized power incumbent in “the second technology” of the communist mode.

[44] Specifically, as an event in the actualizing lineage of the auteur that “made” it. The epitome of the auratic event of the cinematic work is another sleight of hand: the idea of the premiere, which attempts to locate the film within a single moment of realization, ignoring the long and multivalent process of production and accreditation which got it to the point of theatrical presentation – as if it appeared simultaneously across the globe all at the same time.

[45] “Aura, Appropriation,” p. 104.

[46] Ziarek, Krzysztof. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Electronic Mutability,” pp. 209–225, Walter Benjamin Studies: Walter Benjamin and Art, edited by Andrew Benjamin, London, Bloomsbury, 2005, p. 209.

[47] Ibid., p. 223.

[48] Michelangelo Pistoletto. “Man with Yellow Pants.” The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, 2019, Accessed 10 Dec. 2019. Pistoletto describes his Man with Yellow Pants as “available for a continuous happening…The viewer and subject are both in the same situation, neither one can impose his will on the other.” Note that even the official museum archive image includes a viewer in the frame.

[49] Sontag, Susan. “Happenings: Art of Radical Juxtaposition,” pp. 183–190. Against Interpretation, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, p. 184.

[50] “Society of the Spectacle,” p. 21. Debord describes the way that “social space is blanketed with ever-new layers of commodities” (21), but construes this instead as fractious and alienating.

[51] This terminology returns us to one of the original influences of Benjamin’s in regards to term “aura”: Karl Wolfskehl, as Hansen identifies. “Benjamin singles out [his] essay ‘Lebensluft’ (‘Air of Life’; 1929), which…begins with the words ‘We may call it aura or use a less ‘occult’ term—every material being radiates it, has, as it were, its own specific atmosphere. Whether animate or inanimate…created by human hand or unintentionally produced, everything thus pushes beyond itself, surrounds itself with itself, with a weightless fluidal husk.’” (“Aura, Appropriation of a Concept,” p. 121)

[52] Ziarek, p. 219. He continues: “This deliberately temporalized unfolding of experience in art seems to address precisely the prevalent foreshortening of being into information, which, no longer characterized by the rhythm of its unfolding and temporality, becomes instead circumscribed in terms of availability for storage and processing” (p. 221).

[53] Vincent, para. 5.

[54] Rolez, p. 2.

[55] Qtd. in “Aura, Appropriation of a Concept,” p. 121

[56] “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics,” p. 6. “The original field of aesthetics is not art but reality – corporeal, material, natural,” Buck-Morss notes (p. 6).

[57] “Comparative Works: Maids of Honor.” Guggenheim.Org, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2012, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019.

[58] Vija Celmins. “To Fix the Image in Memory.” The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, 2019, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019. I would argue that though this qualifies technically as example of recreative art – but of nature, not prior work – its fanatical reproduction of (and inclusion of) its catalyzing subjects amount to condemnation of “Realism” and “Naturalism” as historically wrought representation methods, thereby a reduction and essentialization of form.

[59] Schjeldahl, Peter. “Harald Szeemann’s Revolutionary Curating.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 2019, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019. Schjeldahl goes further into the distance at which these two technological modes now operate within their bifurcated market, and the ironies that ensue: “Nothing forb[ids] you from buying the American Robert Barry’sUranyl Nitrate (1969) …But imagine being responsible for four one-gram vials of a radioactive uranium salt with a reported half-life of four and a half billion years.”

[60] Bersani, Leo. “Against Ulysses,” pp. 201–229. Raritan, vol. 8, no. 2, 1988, p. 210. The proximity of Bersani’s revelations about the Joyce text to the primary method of implicating artificial intelligence into artmaking is notable. Joyce himself sounds like a Generative Advesarial Net in the way that he “cultivates a deliberately fragmentary, unusable, even ignorant relational play with the entries of culture’s encyclopedia” (p. 210).

[61] “Death of the Author,” p. 142.

[62] Bersani, p. 224 – i.e. “The experimentalism of Ulysses is far from the genuine avant-gardism of Women in Love, Le bleu du Ciel, or almost any of Beckett's fictions.”

[63] Sontag, Susan. “On Style,” pp. 18-32. Against Interpretation, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, p. 31. Emphasis mine.

[64] This false presentation of novelty within endlessly recycled linguistic techniques still holds as the center of the literary realm, as the very terminology of the “novel” so deftly makes clear. The fact of this forgetting – and the failure of literary critics to hold their works accountable to precedence – is what leads Sontag to bemoan the “philistinism of interpretation [which] is more rife in literature than in any other art,” a polemic that undergirds her entire collection of essays from the early 1960s. (Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation,” pp. 10-18. Against Interpretation, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, p. 13)

[65] “Society of the Spectacle,” p. 34.

[66] In a GAN, “A generative model G that captures the data distribution, and a discriminative model D that estimates the probability that a sample came from the training data rather than G. The training procedure for G is to maximize the probability of D making a mistake.” (Goodfellow, Ian J, et al. “Generative Adversarial Networks.” ArXiv.Org, Cornell University, 2014, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019, p. 1).

[67] Goodfellow, p. 1.

[68] Rothman, Joshua. “In the Age of A.I., Is Seeing Still Believing?” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 12 Nov. 2018, Accessed 19 Nov. 2018, para. 5.

[69] Ibid., para. 11.

[70] In “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche asks, “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense,” pp. 42–46. Portable Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann, Viking Press, 1976, p. 3)

[71] Rothman, para. 15.

[72] Ibid., para. 25.

[73] Louis Vuitton. “Masters - A Collaboration with Jeff Koons.” LouisVuittonUS, LVMH, 27 Oct. 2019, Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.

[74] Buck-Morss writes that “If we were really to ‘politicize art’ in the radical way he is suggesting, art would cease to be art as we know it. Moreover, the key term ‘aesthetics’ would shift its meaning one hundred and eighty degrees. ‘Aesthetics’ would be transformed, indeed, redeemed, so that, ironically (or dialectically), it would describe the field in which the antidote to fascism is deployed as a political response.” Texture, for all its communistic potential, has been programmed specifically for mass-produced commodification in mind, rather than the “task far more difficult – that is, to undo the alienation of the corporeal sensorium” (“Aesthetics and Anaesthetics,” p. 5)

[75] Dujardin, Alain. “This 100-Year-Old Dutch Movement Shaped Web Design Today.” Wired, Condé Nast, 26 Jan. 2017, Accessed 16 Dec. 2019, para. 2.

[76] Broughton, Ellie. “Encountering Literary Bots in the Wilds of Twitter.” Literary Hub, Grove Atlantic, 2 Mar. 2017, Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.

[77]“Hemingway Editor.” Hemingwayapp.Com, Hemingway Editor, 2013, Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.

[78] Qtd. in Weeks, Liston. “Hemingway Doesn’t Always Live Up To His Code.” Npr.Org, National Public Radio, 2019, Accessed 10 Dec. 2019, para. 16.

[79] Ibid., para. 19.

[80] Sontag, Susan. “Nathalie Sarraute and the Novel,” pp. 74-81. Against Interpretation, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, p. 74.

[81] Ziarek, p. 215.

[82] Benjamin writes that “The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the purpose of all technology. But… technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his” (Benjamin, Walter. “To the Planetarium,” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. pp. 58-59. Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al. Translated by Edmond Jephcott et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 31 May 2008, p. 59). This is a further development of his assertion in the Work of Art essay that “The first technology really sought to master nature [through occult means], whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity” (“Work of Art,” p. 26).

[83] Sterne, Jonathan. “The Mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” pp. 825–842. New Media & Society, vol. 8, no. 5, Oct. 2006, 10.1177/1461444806067737. Accessed 17 Dec. 2019, pp. 825-828.

[84] From editor’s introduction to Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s “Production–Reproduction: Potentialities of the Phonograph,” qtd. in “DJ Culture,” pp. 1067–1144. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, New York, Bloomsbury, 2017, p.1073.

[85] The Situationist International, “Détournement as Negation and Prelude.” (qtd. in “DJ Culture,” p. 1080).

[86] This terminology is Sontag’s, applied by her in reference to the Happenings of 1960s New York, and instructively placed within the Surrealist milieu: “The Surrealist tradition in all these arts is united by the idea of destroying conventional meanings, and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtaposition (the “collage principle”) …The Surrealist sensibility aims to shock, through its techniques of radical juxtaposition” (“Happenings,” p. 187).

[87] DJ Sprinkles, Resident Advisor twenty four/seven. Nowadays, New York. June 26-27, 2019.

[88] Fatty M, #No_borders. Ankali, Prague. April 19-20, 2019.

[89] [Citation - Jonathan Sterne, The MP3 as Cultural Artifact]

[90] Adorno, Theodor. “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” pp. 270–299. Aesthetic Theory, edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, London, Continuum, 1997, p. 284. It is crucial to note that, in paraphrasing Adorno, I am taking on his theory of self-production by applying it counterintuitively to the way he used it. For Adorno, synthesis is the cherished act of “symphonic effort” he idealizes onto productions which existed before recording and reproduction rendered them obsolete, or at least in competition for the records as a true performance. Adorno nostalgicizes these instances against what he calls “the new fetish”: “flawlessly functioning, metallically brilliant apparatuses… [in which] its performance sounds like its own phonograph record” (p. 284). Adorno is here referring to the technicization of the symphony, but his words apply even more aptly to the work of electronic music. I therefore agree with Adorno’s statement and extend it into the present, repositioning it as such: it is undeniably true that all forms of performed music, particularly pop, have a live component that is now only secondary, imitative, of their recordings. The only synthetic space which exists in music now, the one which most closely resembles the symphonies of the pre-recorded age, are therefore the unrecordable, unpredictable spaces where DJs select. Their assemblage of media is only truly immediate form of popular music extant today.

[91] Witt, Emily. “The Life and Art of Wolfgang Tillmans.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 10 Sept. 2018, Accessed 25 Sept. 2018, para. 4. Tillman’s photography here is a notable, and unique counterexample to the otherwise exploitative attempts at capturing and reproducing the rave space; the formal qualities of his photography were themselves in homage to the immediate environment. As a rule, “He does not publish photographs of underground spaces or parties until they have closed down” (para. 42).

[92] Ibid., para. 59.

[93] Ibid., para. 29

[94] Ibid., para. 29.

[95] Wolfgang Tillmans: Rebuilding the Future, 26 Oct. 2018-10 Mar. 2019, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Visited Feb. 8, 2019.

[96] Witt, para. 44.

[97] Adorno, p. 285.

[98] Rolez, p. 2.

[99] To put it in a specifically Marxist construction: The use-value of the mechanical object must be resurrected outside of the shadow of its exchange value as a commodity. As Adorno notes, “The more inexorable the principle of exchange-value destroys use-value for human beings, the more deeply does exchange-value disguise itself as an object of enjoyment” (“On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” p. 279). Reimagining technological development outside of a capitalist ideology would drastically recast the roles it plays within mass society. Art today has the duty to offer alternatives which provide us with a more harmonious mediation between humanity and nature incumbent with Benjamin’s second technology.

[100]Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer,” pp. 79-95. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. pp. 19-55. Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al. Translated by Edmond Jephcott et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 31 May 2008, p. 85.

[101]The safe space trend is “bolstered by a global network of promoters, artists, DJs, and party-loving activists who believe that creating that ‘everybody’s free to feel good’ environment can only be achieved through clear communication of expectations, boundaries, and consequences.” (Kakaire, Christine. “A Space to Be Yourself: The Rise of Safe Space Parties.” DJMag.Com, Thrust Publishing Ltd., 11 Sept. 2019, Accessed 10 Dec. 2019, para. 7).

[102]“Author as Producer,” p. 87.

[103]Ibid., pp. 89-93.

[104] “Work of Art,” p. 26

[105]“The Author as Producer,” p. 88.