When are copies more authentic than originals? Factum Arte’s Adam Lowe in conversation with Simon Schaffer.

Photo credits: Vilson de Jesus. [online] www.factumfoundation.org [Accessed February 1st 2019].

By Clare L. E. Foster

See the just-released video here of the conversation between Factum Arte’s Adam Lowe and Simon Schaffer ‘Replicas: perspectives from art and science’, part of the Re- Network’s series Beyond Originals and Copies

Factum Arte’s prodigious industry since the mid-nineties means we will have to rethink what we mean by original, copy, and authenticity. Technologies developed under its aegis mean it is now possible to capture and record data about an artwork to an accuracy of 100 microns (100 million measured spatial points per square meter) – and for the first time, this year, these works can now be rematerialized to an accuracy of 20 microns. This, as Simon Schaffer says, marks a ‘complete revolution in the last two decades’.

With these degrees of accuracy, in terms of human capacities to perceive, there is there no meaningful data loss between ‘original’ and ‘copy’. But the computer-assisted combined photogrammetric recording processes often reveal more about the original than has been knowable until now. At what point in long histories of restoration and cleaning – of adding and taking away – is an object most original? As Factum founder Adam Lowe says – who has learned to recognise whether a Tintoretto, say, has been restored in Germany in the 1930s, or in London in the 1960s – ‘when you look at [a painting], you are looking at levels of originality, and increasing levels of interpretation. For Lowe, originality is ‘less a fixed moment, than a process,’ an active and dynamic state, changing over time, and in permanent and profound interaction with its social and political context. A rematerialized copy has to choose where to locate an original in a longer story of being uprooted, reframed, restored, or if nothing else, simply ‘having aged’. The uniqueness that gives traditionally-valued objects what Walter Benjamin famously called their ‘aura’, does not consist in their integral materiality in quite so straightforward a way as might first appear. And as Bruno Latour has put it, responding to Factum Arte’s work over the years, the ‘aura’ can migrate.[1]

The press picked up on this and the new questions it raised: ‘whether,’ as Lowe says, ‘the experience of seeing a facsimile of this degree of faithfulness, in its intended setting, at its intended height, with its intended light, with its intended architectural references, was in some way more authentic. For us there was this beautiful moment where originality and authenticity had been separated.’

The original of Veronese’s mural Wedding at Cana, for example, was hacked off the end wall of a Venetian monastery’s dining room by Napoleon, reframed in gilt as a hung painting, heavily restored, and is experienced today in the Louvre (opposite the Mona Lisa) as a high-up dark and shiny surface reflecting zenithal artificial light. Factum Arte replicated the painting in its original mural setting, a feast on the wall of a bright white-walled feasting room, frameless, accessible, lit by natural daylight from windows on each side so attention is drawn to different elements of the picture as the day passes, giving a feeling of liveness and immediacy. On unveiling, some viewers wept – in full knowledge this was a ‘copy’. The press picked up on this and the new questions it raised: ‘whether,’ as Lowe says, ‘the experience of seeing a facsimile of this degree of faithfulness, in its intended setting, at its intended height, with its intended light, with its intended architectural references … was in some way more authentic. For us there was this beautiful moment where originality and authenticity had been separated.’

Added to which, an original is never only a piece of integral material; it is always also a consensually-attributed value. The human beings who care about an original – and the question of why it matters to them – have come to be at the heart of the Factum Foundation’s recent practice, which engages with what Schaffer calls ‘restorative justice at the level of the scan: the relationship between absolute political and cultural loss – cultural genocide – and the work of the copy, of reproduction.’

In sum, as Simon Schaffer puts it, ‘What Factum Arte’s work enables is a shift of vision, in which various incarnations of the work – whether called replicas or originals – are better understood as having lives rather than states, careers rather than mere conditions’. We should understand such works, he says, in terms of ‘dynamics, rather than points’.

The race to preserve – to document the ‘articulate evidence’ before it is too late – can be  dramatic. One set of Amazonian petroglyphs was hacked off in the time between Factum Arte’s obtaining permission and funding to record them and arrival on site in the Amazon rainforest to do the work (belonging to the same peoples, the Kuikuro and the Wauja from the Upper Xingu, who feature in Simon McBurney’s The Encounter[2]). This story itself – and the physical reconstruction of the sacred cave of Kamukuwaká – will be part of a remarkable experiential artwork created with members of the Wauja in Venice during this year’s Biennale: (http://www.factumfoundation.org/pag/1289/The-Sacred-Cave-of-Kamukuwak%C3%83). As Schaffer points out, this is about restoring not just a site-specific object, but traditional human practices that depend upon it.

The idea of ‘originality’ as about unique material integrity is an image driven in part by Western ideas of property. Factum Arte’s ‘copies’, and the digital data they are based on, propose we see very different values in ongoing circulation – sets of relationships, potential agencies, human investments. As Lowe explains, the future commercial value of the digital data about the original, which has multiple uses (sharing of all kinds, future rematerialisation, condition monitoring) if owned and monetised by the custodians of the originals, could transform the world’s heritage industry – take it out of the whims of governments and put it in the hands of those who care about the objects, whose identities and cultures are at stake in the objects. In such a scenario, Factum Arte’s rematerialisations and the transportable data they are based on exist in parallel with their originals, informing our understanding of them, and enabling them to do more to more people, now and in the future.

In sum, as Schaffer puts it, ‘What Factum Arte’s work enables is a shift of vision, in which various incarnations of the work – whether called replicas or originals – are better understood as having lives rather than states, careers rather than mere conditions’. We should understand such works, he says, in terms of ‘dynamics, rather than points’. This is also key to understanding the values at stake in one of Factum Arte’s current battles – to preserve the Whitechapel Bell Foundry: Saved by the Bell. In fact the crucial thing in that campaign is to grasp that it is not merely a set of objects, or a physical building, that deserves to be preserved: but an unparalleled continuity of human practice, casting bells in the same way, in the same place, unbroken, over five centuries – bells that still exist all over the world, from Big Ben to the Liberty Bell – and what that extraordinary cumulative relationship to time, and geography, uniquely enables: emotionally, culturally, historically, and technologically.[3]

save-bell560

References

[1] ‘The migration of the aura or how to explore  the original through its fac similes’; by Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, in Bartscherer, Thomas (ed) Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, Chicago 2011, pp. 275-298.

[2]The Encounter Review: Simon McBurney’s Revolution in the Head’  The Guardian, Sept 30, 2016

[3] See the urgent petition to stop its destruction at: Save Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.