Thursday, April 14, 2005

Virtual Aura? Cyber Flaneur? What is that?

A fairly straightforward and interesting article on "The Virtual Aura and the Digital Flâneur", written by the Curator of New Media for The Israel Museum:

The visitor in a museum is responding to cultural processes that are reflected through the trajectories of the aggregated and contextualized objects. These sometimes precious, sometimes mundane objects are modified in the exhibition context, where they go through a process of museumification, extracted from distant locations and placed on a spotlight pedestal, or isolated in a glass cage. They become re-conceptualized and re-contextualized and serve to petrify cultural values in much the same way as the theatre projects the human condition through metaphor and allegory. While both the theatre and the heterochronical spaces of a museum are both artificial and temporary projections, the structure of the exhibition relies on 'real', culturally robust objects. Could this wonder resonate in the digital image of the new media? Could there even be such a thing as a virtual aura?


A museum that does not exist in objective reality and is exclusively constructed electronically on the World Wide Web is the MUVA, El Pais Virtual Museum of Art. This museum is a virtual fabrication, and maintains only a tenuous connection to reality. MUVA utilizes a 3D technique, Web2mil, to conjure up a magic environment. Alicia Haber, the Director of the museum, welcomes visitors the museum, specializing in contemporary Uraguayan and Latin American art, and its extensive collection of paintings by leading Uraguayan artists...

In order to construct the same museum in concrete, steel and glass, it would have cost over 100 million dollars, a prohibitive sum for the Uruguayan reality. Due to the efforts of this highly motivated and imaginative team, Uruguay's artists can now show their works collectively, substituting that impossible museum with their own virtual museum. To recall Lash and Urry's premonitions that there has been a 'compression' of time and space as well as Giddens' dubious implications for society we may conclude that discern that the virtual metaphor of a museum has become emblematic of the emptying out of subject and object. Even so, while we do recognize a substantial loss, we might also side with Benjamin that, in this loss, there is a welcome gain. With the liberation of the original object and distribution over the Internet, this opens up, for the first time, the availability of Uruguayan art for remote visitors and the opportunity for these artists to reach a broader audience.

The history of photography has long left behind the notion of the photograph as historical document, and through aesthetic appreciation has come to be a theoretical object, no longer perceived merely as a stand-alone simulacrum, eventually attaining a status of its own. This ontological evolution took almost a century and we now recognize the capacity of the photographic image to stir emotions and evoke wonder. Roland Barthes (Barthes, 1981, 2000) affirmed that photographs do radiate a certain kind of 'aura'. The aura of the lost in me and of lost memories much in the same way that Proust's textual reminiscences of the Madeleine pastry and the potency of it's smell that served to evoke buried memory. Barthes distinguishes the "punctum" as that accident of photographic detail that pricked him, bruised him and was so poignant to him that it evoked an almost transcendental experience, conjuring up poignant lost memories of his mother. The historical process of the photographic image emerged from window to artifact, as video has migrated from documentation tool to art form. Perhaps we need to maintain an aesthetic distance from the World Wide Web in order to distinguish the parameters of the still new medium, and to identify new spaces of enchantment amongst the cacophony of information.

What would such an "aesthetic distance" entail if not a persistent critique, the refusal to grant virtuality a firm ontological or naturalized bearing, (as if a priori) immune to 'deconstruction'? (It's tempting to call a simple category-error every time someone starts an apocalyptic sentence with something like: "We no longer..." What is it about obnoxious, self-proclaimed "postmodernists" that they feel themselves so inhabited by the holy ghost of prophecy? To feel comfortable sounding even vaguely like some new-age mail-order mystic whilst quoting Benjamin ought to be a cardinal sin. An entirely predictable backlash against all things "theory" caused in large part by these self-designated prophets too in love with the sound of their own voices to pause and consider their own context.)
N.B. Rant not intended for the author quoted above directly. (And of course larger, more banal and violent political trends are only safely ignored by the willfully irresponsible.) Read her essay.

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