The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Pre-production

Colosseo: Reimagining the Roman Coliseum with type (Canon 7D) from Cameron Moll on Vimeo.

Cameron Moll has created a poster that depicts the Coliseum using type. The Colosseo is a gloriously hybrid entity, digitally produced but mechanically reproduced. The prints are these beautiful objects, but the Colosseo is also data. You can buy parts of the data as vector art glyphs, while a low-resolution digital copy flies around the Internet.

The artwork is great but I’m sharing this for the video, which first lovingly depicts and then explicitly discusses the fetishistic craftsmanship of printing the posters. In fact, the video devotes far more time to the process of reproducing the work than to the time spent creating it, which was done on a computer and much more time-consuming. (Moll has released other videos focussing the act of digital creation.)

Here’s why this fascinates me:

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.

Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

And yet, here are Cameron Moll and Bryce Knudson managing to impart all kinds of aura and ritual to the reproduction. The reproductions are weirdly more authentic than the original which is just a file with dubious forward-compatibility.

I enjoy this alchemy, made possible by the presence of easier reproduction techniques. It transmutes the time needed to make a letterpress work into painstaking labour when, at the moment of invention, it was labour-saving. Imagine the salespeople and inventors of these machines learning that their long term legacy would be assured by how difficult they are to use, compared to their displacing successors (yes, yes, I know there are special features of the resulting print that are unique to the process but the video is all about the process itself).

What I’m deeply curious about is what comes next. At what point will the techniques have morphed and changed to that point that lovingly submitting PDFs to be printed “by hand” on colour printer feels more authentic than whatever’s replaced it? I suppose we’re about due for dot-matrix nostalgia.

I think we’re already seeing some glimpses of that sentiment in essays like this one:

I want to make things, not just glue things together.

Mike Taylor Whatever happened to programming?