Issue 2/2018 - originalcopy

One to One-and-a-Half

On the Spectrum of Contemporary Artistic Copying Practices

Christian Höller

The fake snuff movie effect alone is remarkable. In Kanye West’s notorious music clip Famous (2016), as the camera eye slowly fades down through the clouds, the pixelly image resolution already suggests something nasty. When the first hints of faces appear, as if they were filmed with a cheap pre-digital video camera, you are already caught in the middle of a reality/celebrity porno which unfolds with relish. Twelve US-American stars—among them the current and a former president, pop icons like Rihanna and Taylor Swift, along with West himself and his consort Kim Kardashian—were modeled as wax dolls for the ten-minute film. Slowly it becomes clear, first with then without the music, what the clip is actually about; the figures are draped on a seemingly endless bed, like a row of sleeping apostles. Draped in the truest sense of the word—in the beginning you only see naked or half covered body parts or details like tattoos. The complete “line-up” is only revealed later on in the clip: a supper-like tableau not around a long table but in a wide bed; and not really “vivant” (the figures only move twice, more ghostly than really alive) rather “mort”—real people, frozen or mortified as copies of themselves. And in racy poses, not to mention, which seem more like poor imitations seen (or imagined) a hundred times over than “authentic” nudity.1
Famous can indeed be read as a self-reflexive and at once tongue-in-cheek act in the world of fame and celebrity life, where there is no return after a certain point. At the same time the film—like so many other practices in today’s digital culture—embeds itself in the proliferating setting of an almost omnipresent “copy art”. And this doesn’t mean the mere unilinear process from A (the essentially untouchable original) to B (the “secondary”, alienated, allegorizing, or otherwise contextualizing replica) anymore. Nor does this “copy culture” correspond with the intentions of earlier appropriation processes in art, which primarily took artifacts from the midst of society, the cultural mainstream, to be used for the purposes (and disposition) of a marginal, against-the-grain practice. In comparison, copy culture in the broadest sense, spanning from concept art references to replicated Internet memes to diverse do-it-yourself web practices, is much more universal—and momentous. Copies from real life, as “Famous” illustrates so drastically, have long since become autonomous entities equipped with their own lives (even if, a telling dialectic incidentally, they appear dead or temporarily inanimate). And what’s more: The idea of subjecting high-profile cultural heritage to a critical litmus test by alienating or recontextualizing it has been exhausted to such an extent—as the middle and marginal, high and low are long since intertwined—that a critical orientation along these coordinates hardly seems possible.

So if “real copies” are already being worked with in the heart of celebrity culture in a quite ambiguous way—and can’t fame be understood as the infinite replicability of itself in a sense?—what is the situation with artistic approaches which also (out of necessity) build upon this copying principle? The taxability of authorship and property rights as an irrefutable criterion can be argued for art, and for the pop world as well to an even greater extent. But the practice, as it seems, is already far more advanced than the discourse (or conceptual reference point) in this context. And thus, critical practices, in particular, which employ the principle of copying—be it documentary-reconstructive, active-constructivist, or as a general guideline for contemporary network thinking—have been surfacing for some time now.

When a Monument Pays a Visit

Reproducing the persona of an entertainment celebrity or politician circulating in the public or media sphere, whether with digital or sculptural means, has enjoyed great popularity since longer—not least in the circles of post-Internet art. In her film Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen (2014) Cécile B. Evans, for instance, conjured a digital copy of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman—shortly after his death—floating amid jellyfish and other colorful items. “I’m just a bad copy made too perfectly, too soon,” says the voice of the avatar. Here the copying process clearly aims to undo a real event (the premature death of Hoffman) with artistic means or similarly to suspend the irreversibility of a real process in the medium itself.2 The politician copies in Josh Kline’s video Crying Games (2015) also behave rather counterfactually when they ruefully beg for forgiveness. Likewise, something is suspended here in an artificially created context, albeit not what anyway or inevitably already happened rather something that cracks the door open to the literally unimaginable (or an extremely rare situation).3 The “one-and-a-half times” copy, so to say, goes so far as to correct the bad original—without countering it with a real alternative (which would then result in “two”).

Politicians and real decision-makers can, however, be confronted in other ways with the implications and consequences of their actions. A form of agitational copying can come into play, for example, as practiced by the activist group Center for Political Beauty (CPB). This copying might include the actual theft and temporary re-erection of a public monument, which was the case in the project First Fall of the European Wall (2014). Some of the white crosses erected in memorial to those who died at the Berlin Wall were brought to the EU outer border in Melilla to remind us of today’s victims of rigorous border regimes.4 The copying process can also take on even more constructivist and simulationist traits. When the Thuringian right-wing AfD politician Björn Höcke proclaimed in a speech that Germans are “the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital”, activists saw it as an opportunity to send a replica of the monument on tour—specifically, to Bornhagen in the immediate vicinity of Höcke’s house.5 Following elaborate preparations, the CPB rented an adjacent property, built concrete reproductions of the stelae from Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and unveiled it to the disgust of the politician and the like-minded community on site.
The reactions to the project Deine Stele (Your Stelae) ranged from actual physical confrontations to an attempt to stigmatize the artists group as a “terrorist association” and even legal actions against the authors of this “terror”. The latter has been unsuccessful to date as the responsible court prohibited the owner of the property from removing the stelae. Consequently, this monument copy will continue its visitation in this inhospitable habitat on the longer term—it came to stay, one could say with reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic novel. The approach to copying employed in projects like this has more than just a provocative or confrontational value (to bring deniers of certain facts in contact with “original” proof of these facts). This accounts for its actual quantifiable effect, but the greater consequences for a contemporary artistic-activist practice reside in the fact that one must no longer address the “original” or “authentic” in order to achieve this effect. An amateur representation, a self-made copy is more than enough, when not better than “the real thing”. “Deine Stele” had at least one-and-a-half times the impact as prompting Höcke to visit the “real” Holocaust Memorial would have.

The Avatar of the Liaison

Achieving at least one-and-a-half times the effect of findings which have yet to receive the attention they deserve is what Forensic Architecture’s practice strives for. Whereas a project like Deine Stele is designed to generate a desired effect by crafting a (however sophisticated) copy of a real monument, this process runs in reverse, so to speak, with Forensic Architecture. The departure point is a factual event that already took place, which cannot be easily accessed given the time that has passed—but also because of obvious cover-ups and secrecy. A precise act of reconstruction is performed, to the extent the available evidence and employed reconstruction media permit, in an attempt to approximate the “original” event as accurately as possible. The meticulous simulation process ultimately aims to uncover a (most plausible and consistent) version of a real incident—something that has been kept under lock and key due to political or intelligence intrigues.
77sqm_9:26min, the title of one of these projects, takes the space-time coordinates of the crime scene as the starting point for a rigorous simulation of an obscured sequence of events. The murder of the young operator of an Internet café, Halit Yozgat, in Kassel on April 6, 2006 went down in the annals as the ninth of ten homicides by the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU). To this day what happened on that afternoon in the Internet shop has not been adequately explained—also because of the vague testimony by intelligence officer Andreas Temme, who was present either in the café or in the immediate vicinity at the time of the murder. There is even a video in which Temme re-enacts his whereabouts6—a document among many others in connection with the murder which were “leaked” in 2015 and gave rise to much speculation. When this transpired the activist alliance “Unraveling the NSU Complex” had already been founded. In the meanwhile it has attempted to shed light on the still unclarified course of events through a number of actions and initiatives and, above all, expose the ensnarement between the NSU and the German State Office for the Protection of the Constitution.7 One of these initiatives was to entrust the interdisciplinary group Forensic Architecture with an original as possible simulation of the crime in 2016, ten years after the actual events.

Preliminary work for 77sqm_9:26min was presented in Berlin at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2017 and then the film at the Neuen Neuen Galerie at documenta 14 as part of a comprehensive installation (under the overarching project name “The Society of Friends of Halit”).8 The square meters refer to the surface area of the Internet café, the time to the duration of the events—the latter was reconstructed from the leaked documents, such as statements by persons on site and diverse log-in data. In the style of a digitally animated educational film—including a computer simulation model to concisely reproduce the distribution of sound and smell—“77sqm_9:26min” analyzes three possible scenarios: After assessing and comparing all available evidence, it concludes that the liaison Temme, contrary to his own testimony, must have been at the crime scene at the time of the murder. Even though a parliamentary investigation committee of the State of Hesse rebutted these claims upon presentation of the report by Forensic Architecture in August 2017, this scenario remains legit—also because of new evidence that came into play—and more probable than everything included thus far in the officially recognized findings.9
The applied method uses a reconstruction to access an “original”, whose authentic substance is no longer retrievable one-to-one, via sophisticated simulation processes. Over the course of this procedure, the copy and its ever-growing, one could say asymptotic refinements successively shift into the place of the original event—or, in other words, it becomes that which remains accessible with documentary or artistic means. The supplement, even though it is not (yet) seen as such by law, has one-and-a-half times the (explosive) power of the clumsily camouflaged “original”. Which, to reiterate it once again, no longer exists in a genuine, openly accessible form.

Seamless Transitions

In a sense, such lost “originals” always represent original fictions, which nevertheless have a real, sometimes disputable—or to be disputed—core. Especially in a “retroactive” actualization, as with Forensic Architecture, visualizing this core relies highly on “constructivist” copying methods. These methods are also central to an array of works that create, often with digital means, versions of matters inaccessible to the public (or only with great difficulty), of bygone events, or of places that exist but are invisible to the naked eye. To speak of copies here might overstretch the term—particularly as the corresponding “originals” are often subject to a regime of invisibility or making invisible. The key point is that the applied processes blur the apparently immutable, underlying poles: real–fictional, analog–digital, original–copied. Or more fundamental: While the copy created out of a tactical (or political) need assumes the place of the original, this outdated binary distinction itself becomes obsolete.
For example, James Bridle “visualizes” British deportation centers in his work “Seamless Transitions” (2015).10 Animated architectural models depict places and classified institutional areas which are usually hidden from the public eye. The seamlessness in the title refers to the smooth sequence of events characteristic of the (usually invisible) processes of detention and deportation from the authorities’ perspective as well as the transition between the inaccessible original and the animated, artificially created copy enabled by the artwork. Whereby the replica “activates” the respective site in the first place and, if one likes, “enacts” it for a critical awareness.
The works of Jon Rafman are exemplary demonstrations that this enactment, in the context of an ever-seamless digital culture, is more than just a transition from A to B, from original to copy or vice versa. Sticky Drama (2015), for instance, presents a (real) cosplay event—a re-enacted version of a computer game in elaborate costumes—in all its details and drasticness (including super slow motion shots).11 Or Erysichthon (2015), which, like many of Rafman’s other films, collages found items from the deep web into short didactic pieces about the nature of the visual in the age of a now impossible (and placeless) differentiation between original and copy.12 “If you look at these images enough, you begin feeling like you composed them,” a voice says at one point, and the recurring motive is the act of devouring oneself —the image principle that irreversibly subverts exactly those binary orders we are talking about here. A shiny metallic cube is absorbed by a black viscous blob, a snake begins to eat its own tail, a mobile phone displays animated figures feasting on other figures. The combination of all of these “items” fished out of the web, which were placed online by active users at some point for whatever reason or mood, does not simply result in a vexatious game of void and hyper-presence (“the void also attracts you,” says a beguiling voice off screen). Rather, the unfathomable “originals” and the appropriated yet by no means just secondary “copies” become engaged in a sort of skewing process, oscillating back and forth without a firm anchor, once again highlighting the network character of today’s digital images.

But in no case does this insight make contemporary political interests (such as those legitimately pursued by the CPB or Forensic Architecture) superfluous. On the contrary: It just hoists the ordering scheme, which is still used today to better grasp the primary and secondary, the authentic and derivative, to a fundamentally different plateau. A plateau where copying sometimes unfurls one-and-a-half times the effect than originals.



[1] Kanye West, Famous, YouTube, (accessed on April 12, 2018).
[2] Cf. Daniel Rourke, 'Please don’t call me uncanny’: Cécile B. Evans at Seventeen Gallery, Rhizome (Dec. 4, 2014), (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[3] Cf. my text on counterfactual parallel worlds: Christian Höller, “Kontrafaktische Parallelwelt,” springerin 1 (2017): 6–7.
[4] Cf. Center for Political Beauty, “First Fall of the European Wall,” (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[5] Cf. Center for Political Beauty, “Holocaust-Mahnmal Bornhagen,” (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[6] “Tatortbegehung Andreas Temme zum ‘NSU Mord’ in Kassel,” YouTube, (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[7] See “Unraveling the NSU Complex,” (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[8] Forensic Architecture, “77sqm_9:26min,” (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[9] Cf. Robert Mackey & Robert Trafford, A German Intelligence Agent Was at the Scene of a Neo-Nazi Murder. He Can’t Explain Why, The Intercept (Oct. 18, 2017), (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[10] See James Bridle, “Seamless Transitions,” (accessed Apr. 12, 2018); cf. Franz Thalmair, “Offensichtlich – hinter den Kulissen. Zur (nicht nur künstlerischen) Praxis von James Bridle,” springerin 4 (2015): 8–9.
[11] Jon Rafman and Danial Lopatin, “Sticky Drama – Music Video,” vimeo, (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018).
[12] Jon Rafman, “Erysichthon,” vimeo, (accessed on Apr. 12, 2018); cf. Vera Tollmann about Jon Rafman in: Lars Henrik Gass, Christian Höller, and Jessica Manstetten (eds.), after youtube. Gespräche, Portraits, Texte zum Musikvideo nach dem Internet (Cologne: Strzelecki Books, 2018).