In his seminal 1991 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” the video artist Douglas Davis writes that digital bits “can be endlessly reproduced, without degradation, always the same, always perfect.”
This is different, Davis argues, from analogue information. In the past, copying an audio signal — for example, dubbing a copy of a cassette tape — always involved an unpredictable loss of clarity, which Davis compares to waves washing on a beach, always breaking slightly differently. But “digital bits, compatible with the new generation of tools that see, hear, speak, and compute, march in precise, soldierly fashion, one figure after another.”
I made the above video in 2007 as a response to Douglas Davis’ ideas on the iron-clad reproducibility of digital media. It’s an animation of the process of saving an image file in incrementally lower file formats over hundreds of times. Aesthetically, the final result approximates Davis’ description of analogue information as a “wave breaking on a beach, breaking over and over but never precisely in the same form.” And yet, of course, it is an entirely digital object.
It seems to me that despite our collective faith in the fidelity of digital media — evidenced by our willingness to digitize our material, tangible valuables (money, for example, or personal photographs) — decay remains an inherent property of our world. All things decay, tend towards entropy: our current models of digital compression, which seem faultless now, will “decay” relatively as more and more authentic modes of compression are invented, higher qualities are reached. The MP3 files we thought were the bee’s knees in the 90s haven’t deteriorated physically, but they have become increasingly obsolete in the face of FLAC and MPEG-4 files, which is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. Stewart Brand, the writer and futurist, points out in his book Clock Of The Long Now that while we can still read and interpret Mesopotamian clay tablets, the 8″ floppy disks that held all our data ten years ago are approaching unreadability. In twenty years, we’ll still be able to decode hieroglyphics, but what about our emails? Of course, this is relative: even those clay tablets and hieroglyphics will turn to dust eventually.
We understand our world through the lens of change and decay; waves breaking on the beach while new ones form, robustly, out at sea.
Incidentally, the title of Davis’ essay is an homage to Walter Benjamin‘s famous 1935 article, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which argues, among other things, that mass-media access to art liberates it from its traditional “parasitic” dependence on ritual, ownership, and place. Benjamin believed that the “aura” of a work of art (that sense of awe and reverence we get from being in the presence of it) is not something inherent to art, but rather a cultural side-effect of its exclusivity, restricted exhibition, authenticity, or perceived value. In the burgeoning age of “mechanical reproduction” (i.e. printed copies, films, and photographs), that aura disappears, freeing art from its ties to the bourgeoisie and allowing mass audiences to, in a sense, “own” the work.
The age of digital reproduction undoubtedly redoubles this effect, democratizing media more rapidly and more thoroughly than Benjamin could ever have anticipated. One needn’t ever see the Mona Lisa, for example, to understand its value; the image has taken on a hyperreal quality that anyone with a cursor can tap into. We have moved beyond consuming media and into making it ourselves — artists can download, remix, and redistribute work as they see fit.
But do digital copies retain fidelity to their originals?
The below video is a similar experiment to the first: by filming an event (i.e. the “original”), then projecting it on a wall (i.e. the “reproduction”), then re-filming, and re-projecting, the image and experience of the original disappears.