Friday, June 29, 2012

Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

'It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless'.

Israeli artist Dani Karavan created this memorial to the German-Jewish philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin in the Spanish town of Portbou. Titled Passages, the memorial is a sculptural installation that is integrated into the landscape. Visitors enter a passage that slopes down through the cliff face before it falls vertically into the sea below. Progress is blocked at the point that the passage falls away by a glass screen on which the quotation above by Walter Benjamin is etched in five languages.

As a German-Jew Benjamin had been stripped of his nationality by the Nazis and was living in exile in Paris. When Germany defeated France in June 1940 Benjamin fled south; he had been issued with a visa for the US and planned to travel there via Spain and Portugal. Like many refugees including Alma Mahler and her husband Franz Werfel, he used the route along the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia to cross from occupied France into neutral Spain. But when Benjamin reached the first Spanish town across the border, Portbou, he was told that Franco's government had cancelled all transit visas and had ordered the Spanish police to return refugees crossing the border from France.

Walter Benjamin was convinced that the collaborationist Vichy regime would hand him over to the Nazis if he was sent back, and rather than face this he killed himself with a dose of morphine in a hotel in Portbou on September 26th, 1940. The bitter irony is that he was misinformed about the cancellation of exit visas, and others travelling with him continued their passage the next day and eventually reached Lisbon safely. Walter Benjamin is buried in the town's Catholic cemetery, which is next to the Passages memorial. The epitaph on his headstone reads 'There is no document of culture that at the same time is not one of barbarism'.


Although Walter Benjamin remains little known outside the academic world, his essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936) has reached a wider audience. This posits that modern techniques of reproduction have destroyed the aura, or authority, of original works of art - a thesis that is very relevant to the dilemma facing live classical music in the age of the iPod. So as a soundtrack to this post I propose not one of the moving but familiar laments for the Jewish diaspora, but a work of art that takes mechanical reproduction well beyond the primitive technologies known to Walter Benjamin.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, French bass player Renaud Garcia-Fons comes from a Catalonian family, the soundtrack is a new CD recorded by him in a 15th century priory in French Catalonia, and I discovered it in an independent store in Ceret, just across the border from Portbou. But there is another reason why Solo - the Marcevol Concert fits with this post - it blurs the boundary between original and reproduced art that so preoccupied Walter Benjamin. Solo - the Marcevol Concert is a CD of a live concert, but during the performance Renaud Garcia-Fons creates his improvisations by underpinning the solo bass line with live multi-tracking using delays, loops and other devices - see this video. It is a virtuoso display of both musicianship and technical expertise that takes Walter Benjamin's musings on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' into a whole new dimension.


* July 15th, 2012 is the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of Walter Benjamin's birth.

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1 comment:

The Wound Dresser said...

I have the Arcades project, and read it a bit at a time.He was definitely a heavyweight, and I am a lightweight,yet it is illuminating, and beautifully written.