Issue 2/2018 - originalcopy

Copying as Performative Research

Toward an Artistic Working Model

Franz Thalmair

Why original and copy yet again? Why still?
Copying has attained a new diversity. In the context of digital technologies, which facilitate identical reproductions of any data, the practice of copying is omnipresent yet often invisible. It has evolved into a multifarious but controversial cultural technique, which surfaces in public discourses about copyright and plagiarism or unauthorized fakes of patented products. At the root of these debates is the prevailing negative understanding of the copy in opposition to the positively connoted original. From the perspective of contemporary artistic production and in contrast to discussions often conducted from a commercial standpoint, the original no longer serves as the moral basis for the evaluation of the copy, rather the focus has shifted to the interplay between the original and the copy—a potential that was already recognized in art history. With a view to the generative and mimetic processes that constitute this relationship, not only are value systems derived from the establishment of bourgeois ownership privileges in the nineteenth century being questioned anew today; there is also debate about the (digital) control mechanisms that lead to the increasing disappearance of the practice of copying from the realm of the visible.
Various artistic movements explored original and copy throughout the twentieth century. In particular, the pre-war avant-garde and later neo-avant-gardist movements employed artistic processes such as collage and readymades to create new artifacts from found materials. With such forms of appropriation artists explicitly challenged and nuanced traditional categories like originality, authorship, or intellectual property. The computer’s capability to duplicate data without loss, however, antiquates these historical methods of dealing with original and copy for current practices. The ubiquity of various copying techniques confirms that this phenomenon has now established itself both as an artistic and everyday process. But as its mechanisms—largely supported by readymade digital technologies—frequently remain hidden and increasingly immaterialize, especially the functionalities and logics of copying are up for discussion. Artistic practices that utilize the same copying methods they research can be particularly effective for such an investigation into the interplay between original and copy.
The previously merited distinction between original and copy is no longer of importance in the twenty-first century. The former opposites have combined into a new entity. They are not conceived as temporally or hierarchically consecutive but as parallel and equal. In order to examine this circumstance with methods from the humanities, Gisela Fehrmann and other authors proposed viewing the relationship between original and copy as a “process of transcription”, which reveals the relationality of these categories: “The ‘characteristic relational logic’ of processes of transcription consists in the fact that […] the reference object precedes the transcription as a ‘pre-text’, but its ‘status as a script’ is only conferred by this process.”1 Such a thought loop can also be applied to the act of citation: This special form of textual copy refers to a precedent, another text, yet the source only attains the status as original through the selection and reference process.
Looking at “secondary practices of the secondary”, as the author team around Fehrmann poignantly phrased, facilitates, on the one hand, an investigation of the effects these phenomena of appropriation have on the content, formal, and material conditions of current artistic production. On the other, it allows one to simultaneously practice this act of copying based on repetition and to investigate it within this practice itself.
The aim of artistic explorations of original and copy is widely to construct a space of resonance which is not characterized by bipolarity rather where the permanent oscillation between the poles constitutes a self-reflexive practice.2 For only a space where the continuous flux and reflux between original and copy intrinsically represents the unity of the two elements bears the potential to generate new forms of knowledge and artistic practice.

Repetition and Repeatability

The basis for these forms of self-reflection are ideas about the reality-forming dimension of language that philosopher John L. Austin formulated in the early 1960s in his book How to Do Things With Words.3 In contrast to most words which simply describe the world, linguistic expressions that Austin called “performative utterances” create reality. They perform an action. Austin provides the word “yes” in marriages as an example and links the success of such a speech act with its repeatability. That means a “yes” articulated by the couple performs the act of marriage when the word is incorporated in a ritualized and generally agreed upon form, such as the wedding ceremony. Only then does “yes” create reality.
That speech acts do not describe but create reality can be applied to the inextricable relationship between original and copy. A key factor is the repeatability of linguistic expressions, the main aspect of performativity, which—in keeping with Austin—was further developed by Jacques Derrida with the term “iterability”4 and later elaborated by Judith Butler5 in the sense of a political act. Repeatability is not only decisive for the success of speech acts—moreover, its iterative and repetitive character forms the causal basis of the phenomenon of copying. In order to have a reality-forming effect, linguistic expressions need to happen within specific conventions. Analogously, art, too, must act within a framework based on conventions in order to be perceived as such. Drawing upon these traditional and repetition-based principles, Dorothea von Hantelmann establishes “how every artwork, not in spite of but by virtue of its integration in certain conventions, ‘acts’” and “how these conventions are co-produced by any artwork—independent of its respective content”.6 Hence, the rules established in the art field in the past continue to have an effect in the present of the respective current artistic work and elicit effects both in the here and now of the artistic activity itself as well as in the conditions of the art field which led to this activity. An analogy to the aforementioned “processes of transcription”, where the original is only constituted as such when the copy refers to it, becomes quite evident.
Building on Anke Haarmann’s thoughts about the methodology of artistic research, it may be concluded that these forms of performative research facilitate two things above and beyond the aesthetic experience: first, the opportunity to reflect upon “the conditions of one’s own position in the medium of artistic practice”; and second, “to investigate”—and, not least, express—“something with the specific means of art in the process of artistic knowledge production”.7 Consequently, certain themes and matters are not viewed exclusively from a supposed outsider position, rather the performative art practice is, at the same time, active within the respective field that is the subject of analysis. Such an artistic working method not only pushes dichotomous dualities like original and copy to their limits—it is a methodological approach whose self-reflexive and performative character allows it to delve into social discourse because it was derived directly from it.

Post-Media Condition, Post-Digital Tendencies

In contrast to pre-digital artistic tendencies, like the readymade, pop, conceptual, or appropriation art, which tried to dissolve the boundaries between original and copy, the copy has become constitutive to contemporary art production. In the “post-digital”8 age the interplay between original and copy has evolved into an overarching phenomenon. Also outside of digital contexts it has become inscribed into artistic production, reception, and distribution processes and—whether forced consciously or unconsciously by the artists—participates in their shaping.
An example of a performative research in which the interplay between original and copy under the described conditions is not only reflected upon but also generated from this in-between is provided by the Brit Mark Leckey with The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (2013) [fig. 1]: Conceived by Leckey as a touring exhibition of the Hayward Gallery in London, works by colleagues such as Martin Creed, Jonathan Monk, Louise Bourgeois, or Ed Atkins are juxtaposed with numerous pieces of art history, everyday culture, and artifacts of other sorts. In specially designed displays the artist-curator presented objects like a mummified cat, a singing gargoyle, a giant phallus from the film “A Clockwork Orange”, and a cyberman helmet. [fig. 2] [fig. 3] All of these objects originated from a collection of images that Leckey had compiled over the years while randomly browsing the Internet and saved to his hard drive. He activated this incidental collection for The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things and triggered a performative cycle by presenting the depicted objects in the exhibition. The digital data materialized in the show and aggregated9 into clusters, similar to how the files were stored in folders on Leckey’s computer. The three-dimensional things took a detour as two-dimensional images in virtual space before reappearing in a three-dimensional form once again as items in an exhibition. The objects, which he collected as digital depictions of real objects, exist today as exhibition views and are likely again circulating in the social networks where the artist once found them.
Leckey went a step further when he transformed “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things” into an installation called UniAddDumThs (2015) [fig. 4] for a subsequent exhibition series. At Kunsthalle Basel, among other places, he presented select things from the already selected collections of things as 3D prints, photographic or otherwise reproductions. Elena Filipovic, director of the exhibition house, wrote about the project: “Having thrown open the floodgates of his hard drive and watched as digital bits and bytes summoned forth actual atoms and matter, materializing in a slew of undeniably real things, Leckey welcomed, organized, and installed them again and again during the exhibition tour of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. Yet I can’t help suspecting that he was most fulfilled when the show was still yet to be made, when he was busy collecting all those jpegs and mpegs that constituted the potential contents of the show.”10 Here Filipovic addresses precisely this in-between in which self-reflection couples with performativity into a form of research which is only active while doing it.
The processes researched and practiced by Leckey in The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things and UniAddDumThs are informed by the digital, yet they do not have to manifest in a digital form necessarily. The point of this performative research—which Filipovic referred to as an “artwork-as-ersatz-exhibition”—is to remain in this fluctuation between the apparent immateriality of digital technologies and their material manifestations. Leckey links this poignantly with the reciprocity between original and copy.
While Walter Benjamin stated in the early twentieth century, “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility”,11 twenty-first-century explorations of original and copy propel this thesis. The act of copying is no longer viewed from the perspective of the original, as it was in Benjamin’s time. And the copy is not conceived as a nemesis of the original either. Here the focus is on artworks fundamentally oriented upon re-installability, re-performability, serializability, versionability, and photographability—or even “jpeg-ability”.12
The transition from technical to electronic and digital media and the corresponding changes in our experience have regularly been the subject of media science debates in the past years. However, they were frequently addressed from a one-sided technological viewpoint, thereby breaking the connection with the fine arts. This is owed not least to so-called media art itself, which has distanced itself from traditional fine art formats since the 1980s with its special institutions, festivals, and exhibitions. Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook see the period “when the term new in new media art was most widely accepted and used” in the years between 2000 and 2006: “After the hype of those years, from 2006 until today, understandings of new media art in relation to contemporary art have significantly changed, and the use of the term new has become outmoded.”13
In the 2005 exhibition The Post-Media Condition at the Neue Galerie Graz, Peter Weibel, with reference to Rosalind Krauss,14 still dealt with the question “whether the new media’s influence and the effect on the old media […] weren’t presently more important and successful than the pieces of the new media themselves”.15 Today, the answer is clear. Artistic practices like Mark Leckey’s not only convey copying methods, more generally, they also help retrace the tracks left in contemporary fine arts by artistic forms of expressions previously distinguished with the attribute “new”. As opposed to Lev Manovich’s juxtaposition of “Duchamp-land” and “Turing-land”,16 two terms that embody the dichotomy between traditional fine arts and media art, the oscillation between analog and digital, between image and object, between Internet and exhibition space dissolves precisely this distinction. Employing the multifaceted processes that reside between original and copy, in The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things and UniAddDumThs Leckey not only investigates the changes in appropriation strategies in a post-digital context, but also the effects that this phenomenon has on the fine arts. Ultimately, the focus becomes how the structural requirements, the manifestations, and the perceptions of “Duchamp-land” are transformed by a “Turing-land” that is increasingly in a state of dissolution—how our medial realities are changing.



[1] Cf. Gisela Fehrmann et al., Original Copy—Secondary Practices, in Media, Culture, and Mediality: New Insights into the Current State of Research, eds. Ludwig Jäger, Erika Linz, and Irmela Schneider (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2010), 77–85, here 79.
[2] Such an approach is employed, e.g., in the artistic-scientific research project originalcopy—Post-Digital Strategies of Appropriation (University of Applied Arts Vienna). See:
[3] Cf. John L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, ed. James O. Urmson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).
[4] Cf. Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context, in Limited Inc (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988[1972]), 1–25.
[5] Cf. Judith Butler, ‘Excitable Speech’ A Politic of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997).
[6] Dorothea von Hantelmann, How to Do Things with Art. The Meaning of Art’s Performativity, trans. Jeremy Gaines and Michael Turnbull (Dijon: les presses du réel, 2010).
[7] Anke Haarmann, “Gibt es eine Methodologie künstlerischer Forschung?” in Wieviel Wissenschaft bekommt der Kunst? Symposium of the Science and Art working group of the Austrian Research Association, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, November 4–5, 2011.
[8] Cf. Kim Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music,” Computer Music Journal 24, 4 (2000): 12–18.
[9] Cf. David Joseslit, “Über Aggregatoren,” in Kunstgeschichtlichkeit. Historizität und Anachronie in der Gegenwartskunst, ed. Eva Kernbauer (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2015), 115–129.
[10] Elena Filipovic, Mark Leckey. UniAddDumThs, in The Artist As Curator. An Anthology (London: Koenig Books / Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2017), 384.
[11] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969[1935]), 6.
[12] Hanno Rauterberg, “Heiß auf Matisse,” Die Zeit 17 (Apr. 20, 2006), 20. Translated for this publication.
[13] Beryl Graham et al, Rethinking Curating. Art after New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010), 21.
[14] Cf. Rosalind E. Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999).
[15] Peter Weibel et al., The post-medial condition, Artecontexto 6 (2005): 12.
[16] Lev Manovich, The Death of Computer Art, Rhizome (Oct. 22, 1996), (accessed on Apr. 1, 2018).