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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 53.1: Erika Balsom
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Authenticity and the Moving Image, Beyond the Limited Edition

Erika Balsom, King's College London

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin wrote, "From a photographic plate, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ [echten] print makes no sense.”[1] Here, Benjamin draws upon a commonly held understanding of authenticity as defined in opposition to that which is ubiquitous and fungible. As Lionel Trilling has written, in nineteenth-century thought, "It was the mechanical principle, quite as much as the acquisitive principle – the two are of course intimately connected – which was felt to be the enemy of being, the source of inauthenticity.”[2] Film was a mechanical copy twice over: a copy of profilmic reality lacking the discernible presence of the artist’s hand and a reproducible medium lacking an original. It transformed the fabrication of images, an activity once associated with the authentic ideal, into something subject to the division of labour that produced a commodity for the masses. In other words, the film image was inauthenticity exemplified.

Benjamin wrote at a time when there was a reasonable expectation that the capacity for reproduction inherent in photographic media would be actualized without restriction – why wouldn’t it be? Today, however, the situation appears rather different; to ask for an "authentic print” makes very much sense, indeed. My article, "Original Copies: How Film and Video Became Art Objects,” traces the history of the limited edition model of distribution in artists’ cinema as one site at which the reproducibility of the moving image is denied in an effort to endow it with the rarity and authenticity proper to the traditional work of art. Whereas the rental model that had been dominant in experimental film throughout most of the twentieth century privileged access, the editioning model that has been increasingly adopted since the 1990s is above all concerned with contractually regulated scarcity. By legally restricting the number of certified copies that may be produced of a given work, it quashes the reproducibility of the moving image and, as a corollary, its ability to circulate widely. This loss in turn generates a gain: authenticity and viability on the art market. Of course, the particular form of authenticity at stake here is quite far removed from Trilling’s description of a Romantic conception of authenticity as an anti-technological, premodern wholeness. So too is it markedly different from Adorno’s notion of genuine authenticity as residing in the registration of transience, in the "scars of damage and disruption” that index the impossibility of ever returning to a purity of origins.[3] Rather, what one finds in the practice of editioning is a form of authenticity that is philosophically false while nonetheless possessing a real market utility.

Are there other deployments of the moving image, beyond the limited edition, that make a claim for authenticity through the strategic deployment of rarity? A comment from one of my article’s invaluable peer reviewers cautioned me about too uncritically parroting the presumption of infinite copying without loss that is embedded in Benjamin’s famous essay. What about wear and tear on negatives? What about the obsolescence of particular film stocks, or of photochemical film itself? Sometimes, there are very real, material barriers that prevent copies from being made. The reader’s comment made me not only adjust the wording of the passage in question, but also got me thinking about what other kinds of rarity and unavailability might exist in artists’ cinema beyond the financial motivations of the limited edition. In addition to the material questions the reviewer raised, I began to think about what kinds of aesthetic and/or conceptual considerations might lead to a strategic denial of the reproducibility of the moving image. Why and how do artists and filmmakers decide to limit the circulation of their work for reasons other than financial gain? What other forms of scarcity exist alongside the artificial scarcity of the limited edition?

My research since the completion of "Original Copies” has begun to explore these questions. Next to the editioning model, perhaps the most common refusal of reproducibility is to be found in those filmmakers who chose to not issue their films on digital formats. In this paradigm, "authentic print” is no longer a contradiction in terms but rather a pleonasm, for any print is authentic just by virtue of being one. The locus of the moving image’s inauthenticity here moves away from the existence of multiple prints and towards the act of transcoding, which is seen as a betrayal of the specificity and historicity of analogue film. Authenticity remains a matter of reproducibility, as it was for Benjamin, but the terms have shifted from a discussion of reproducibility tout court to one that differentiates between simple duplication and format shifting.

Keeping with this attachment to photochemical film, one also sees a form of rarity result from the artisanal processes used by a filmmaker like Luther Price. In his After the Garden series, Price buries found footage in his yard to rot and accumulate mold, then unearths it to scratch and paint on, producing one-of-a-kind prints like After the Garden: Dusty Ricket (2007) and After the Garden: Silking (2010). Notoriously difficult to project due to the accumulated grime, the uniqueness of these fragile prints is compounded by the manner in which they change from screening to screening as they make their tortured way through projectors built for film material altogether less irregular and worked upon. The singularity of a Price screening is thus double: in the form of the print, one encounters a unique object, but in the event of the projection, one partakes in a unique event.

In 1992’s Sound Theory, Sound Practice, Rick Altman wrote of the necessity of breaking away from a text-centered approach to instead consider cinema as an event characterized by attributes such as "multiplicity, three-dimensionality, materiality, heterogeneity, intersection, performance, multi-discursivity, instability, mediation, choice, diffusion, and interchange.”[4] This is, of course, a method that one might very productively deploy in relation to any film. However, when dealing with questions of rarity, the importance of considering cinema as event becomes greater than ever. In a work like Gregory Markopoulos’ Eniaios (1948–c.1990) – an eighty-hour film cycle made to be projected only in a single field in the Peloponnese – text becomes indistinguishable from context. Only six prints of Paolo Cherchi Usai’s Passio (2006) were made, each differently hand-coloured, before the negative was destroyed. To be exhibited the work must be accompanied by a live performance of Arvo Pärt’s passion cantata of the same name. In these examples, one encounters transformations of a reproducible medium into something singular for reasons other than art market viability. Rather, the cultivation of rarity occurs through the integration of non-reproducible elements and out of a strong conviction regarding the conditions under which the work should be seen. In addition to being fascinating works worthy of attention in their own right, my wager is that such extreme iterations of cinema qua event have much to teach film theory about notions of site-specificity and performance in an era of unprecedented image replication and circulation. Though the moving image is inherently reproducible, what would it mean to instead approach it from the side of rarity?

[1] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (Second Version),” trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935–1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 106.

[2] Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 126–127.

[3] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 2004), 29.

[4] Rick Altman, "General Introduction: Cinema as Event,” Sound Theory, Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman (New York: Routledge, 1992), 4.

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