Selfie stick: in hand. Move through the museum; photograph any object that piques one’s interest; apply filter; glance at wall labels if conveniently nearby. Some artworks become sites for group portraits while others—contours carefully (or not) framed within the familiar rectangle of the iPhone screen—warrant a photograph of their own. Lack of discrimination is fine: 16GB of storage can surely hold this many digital files. Move on.
The experience is a familiar one, one certainly known, if not first hand, through inadvertent observation. The facility of digital photography, via the ever-present smartphone, has accelerated the act of looking in the museum. The discourse around this phenomenon is often presented in negative terms, terms frequently indebted to Walter Benjamin’s essay on mechanical reproduction, terms which remind us to be self-critical about the cultural baggage of outmoded concepts like the “original” or “authentic,” and to consider carefully the status of the replica.
The medium of painting, sitting comfortably atop the hierarchy of artistic production, is an obvious lodestone and conceptual linchpin here. To take a single work as an example, artist Ken Okiishi’s commission for Frieze Projects London in 2013—a Perspex walled space with windows on all sides containing visitor-activated paintball guns spewing fuchsia and saffron orbs—was conceived to function both in temporary installation as well as in endless proliferation on the web, as representation. As Okiishi put it:
On a technical as well as on a formal level, it’s a piece that is designed to be photographed, posted and reposted rapidly and with great enthusiasm […] These explosions and smears and drips that happen will become very desirable to be photographed, to be videoed, to be sent on Instagram or Vine or whatever.
As two poles of a conceptual spectrum (unique site of creativity on the one hand; ultimate proliferator on the other), painting and the screen become, paradoxically, easy bedfellows. In the Frieze installation, paint splats multiply across transparent windows and layer atop those on the walls behind; the screen of a smartphone creates yet another layer. Meaning is both lost and gained. Click and run.
This summer, two museum shows grapple more broadly with the implications of repetition, the archive, and digital technologies of replication. The Jewish Museum’s Repetition and Difference (on view through August 16, 2015) and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ salt 11: Duane Linklater (on view through August 2, 2015), open up for questioning, from two different angles, the ontology of the museum object vis-à-vis artistic techniques of replication, whether eighth-century BCE or contemporary, analog or digital. Most striking is the extent to which both shows welcome the issue of replication—understood as both material process and conceptual construct—as an opportunity to be transparent and self-critical about aesthetic assumptions, colonial influences, and, ultimately, collecting biases. Said differently, repetition, sameness, difference, and authorship are bared as the gatekeeper’s invisible hands.