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Reflection on Digital Recombination and Manipulation Value

Adnan Alper Demirci


We live in a period in which the relationship between the unique work of art versus its reproduction
is subject to a big change, similar to the case a century ago. Before all of these changes, the original
art work, as well as its manual reproductions were unique by nature of human hand. Mechanical
reproduction removed the concept of uniqueness from art, apart from the original piece such as
optic negative, mould, or a master tape. Walter Benjamins famous essay The Work of Art in the Age
of Its Technological Reproducibility was written in such a period in order to examine how the
twentieth century technology affected the production, distribution, and consumption of art. In the
fields of design and media, whose functionality depends on reproduction, the essay is considered as
a zenith and found prophetic. As digital reproduction emerges and integrates more into the lives of
people, Benjamins conclusions become a guide to interpret this new nature of art works, in which
the original piece is not distinguishable from its copies. Not only the uniqueness is lost, but also it is
impossible to identify the initial, original copy. This is a new thing compared to the situation of the
work of art in most of the 20th century. That is why it is possible to expect updates to Benjamins title
as The Work of Art in the Age of Its Digital Reproducibility in literature.
In such discussions of digital reproducibility, while it is more likely to consider the creation and
distribution of the digital content (such as digital photographs, illustrations, video streams and MP3
files) by comparing it to the counterparts of the mechanical period, there are more possibilities that
the digital technology provides. For that reason, Jos de Mul uses the phrase digital recombination
instead of digital reproduction1. In his article The Work of Art in the Age of Digital
Recombination, de Mul brings a different perspective to the topic by associating Benjamins work
with database ontology, instead of the work of art itself. He finds a fundamental level on which he
prioritizes the medium of artworks rather than the content or techniques. That way, he can bring
prehistoric painters and new media artists together as they have always used media, which is
used here in the broad sense as means for presenting information2. The thesis he wants to defend
is that on a fundamental level all media art works share some basic characteristics, which are to be
revealed as four basic computer operations for data storing: Add, Browse, Change, and Destroy3.
These operations constitute the dynamic elements of the database ontology de Mul argues.
Referencing Benjamins argument about everything becoming an object for mechanical reproduction
in the age of mechanical reproduction, de Mul similarly claims that in the age of digital databases,
everything nature and culture alike becomes an object for recombination and manipulation4. In
the same sense, de Mul suggests the term manipulation value. While the works of art in the
mechanical age lose their cult value and their status of belonging to art depends on the exhibition
value, the manipulation value similarly brings meanings to the work of art in the digital age. In other
words, the exhibition value is being replaced by () manipulation value5. In the end, de Mul finds
the return of the aura with a twist that the experience being a series of original, auratic copies
and indicates the similarity of digitally manipulated objects to the performing arts process because of
the instability and transience observed in both concepts6. Therefore, while mechanical reproduction

Jos de Mul, "The work of art in the age of digital recombination" in Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life
and Technology, ed. Marianne van den Boomen et al. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), page 99.
2 Ibid., page 95.
3 Ibid., page 99.
4 Ibid., page 101.
5 Ibid., page 95.
6 Ibid., page 103.

is something that Benjamin gets worried in terms of human alienation in his dialectic approach, de
Mul is more optimistic about digital recombination.
The source of optimism of de Mul does not only come from the return of the aura effect of digital
recombination. It is also because of the other side of Benjamins dialectical analysis. The dialect
comes from Benjamins more optimistic point of view to the subject (compared to his
contemporaries such as Adorno7 and Horkheimer). Even though Benjamin on one hand suggests that
the technologically reproduced artwork lacks the aura and the authenticity unlike the original pieces
from previous ages, on the other hand, he acknowledges the new possibilities that the technology
provides. That way, the art is freed from the control of a limited cult and it becomes more
democratic in both manners as production and reachability. Benjamins statement that the
technological reproducibility of the artwork changes the relation of the masses to art8 summarizes
this dialect in the most compact sense. In the case of digital recombination, it is still a valid statement
according to the example from work of the Dutch computer artist and video jockey Geert Mul, as the
masses shape the exhibition by combining four posts (WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE) in order to
function as a filter through a database of 80.000 photographs9.
Our period is indeed witnessing important changes in means of the medium of the works of art. As
the situation is different than the age of mechanical reproduction, new analyses and definitions need
to be made by building upon the writings of Walter Benjamin in order for us to understand and make
better use of the cultural progress. Rather than primarily focusing on the production process as
expected, Jos de Mul takes a more radical approach and builds his analysis on the ontological
structure of artworks. Therefore, he does not stick to the idea of the complete loss of the initial
material, which at least would exist in the mechanical reproduction, and does not fall into a
pessimistic attitude for a possible cultural decline. In this sense, his suggestion of digital
recombination instead of digital reproduction is innovative because by doing this kind of small
change in terminology, he points to the further opportunities provided by digital technology. In
addition, the term manipulation value makes sense when we think of the functionality of artworks
of previous ages: An artwork of cult value is meant to be ritualistic, exhibition value to be reached to
the masses. Then it is safe to say that an artwork of manipulation value is meant to be recombined,
as such statement conforms to the examples given by de Mul.

Bibliography
Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility." Chap. 1 In The
Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media,
edited by W. Michael; Doherty Jennings, Brigid; Levin, Thomas, 19-55. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2008.
De Mul, Jos. "The work of art in the age of digital recombination". In Digital Material: Tracing New
Media in Everyday Life and Technology, edited by Marianne van den Boomen, Sybille
Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Joost Raessens, and Mirko Tobias Schfer, 95-106.
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009
Rosen, Michael. "Benjamin, Adorno and the Decline of the Aura." [In eng]. The Cambridge
Companion to Critical Theory (2004).
7

See Michael Rosen, "Benjamin, Adorno and the Decline of the Aura," The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory (2004).
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," in The Work of Art in the Age of Its
Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. W. Michael; Doherty Jennings, Brigid; Levin,
Thomas(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008)., page 36.
9
De Mul, "The work of art in the age of digital recombination", page 102.
8