Distribution Dossier 1: Why Distribution?

Erika Balsom

This past summer in Kassel, I stumbled into a dark room filled with bodies singing, chanting, dancing. The performance, which had no catalogue page like all the rest of the works in dOCUMENTA (13), was Tino Sehgal’s This Variation (2012). The piece was missing from the catalogue due to the artist’s much-publicized hatred of reproduction. Sehgal forbids the production of catalogues, photographs, or video documentation with the conviction that such reminders are detrimental to the supposed purity of the encounter with his work. So intense is the artist’s desire to preserve singularity that even the sale of his performances is effected through an oral contract in the presence of a notary; no certificate of authenticity exists. Despite this Bilderverbot, a quick YouTube search for “tino sehgal documenta” yields 3:43 minutes of documentation of This Variation: a mostly black screen, some poorly recorded audio, with nothing of what made the performance one of the most talked-about of the exhibition.

To put the ephemerality of This Variation alongside its YouTube bootleg is to stage in a stark manner the poles of rarity and reproducibility as they exist in contemporary art today. Rarity, in a variety of forms, is prized more than ever before, while digital technologies have made images more easily and cheaply reproduced than in the past. One critic remarked that a red thread of dOCUMENTA (13) was the “emplaced condition of things,” an emphasis on the historicity of objects and on temporally and geographically specific experiences. This is a clear rebuff to the placelessness and frenzied mobility of the Internet. These two poles are not as far apart from one another as they might seem: the desire to cultivate uniqueness must be understood in relation to the proliferating copies of digital visual culture, that regime that allows me to access video of a supposedly undocumentable performance in seconds. A similar movement has happened in the arenas of copyright legislation and film industry policy, as cheaper and easier copying has been met with the extension of copyright terms and the development of digital rights management systems like Digital Cinema Package (DCP), now the multiplex norm.

The place of the moving image within this tug of war is a particularly interesting one. For Walter Benjamin, cinema was the greatest exemplar of the liquidation of cultural heritage occasioned by the invention of mechanical reproduction. It was the supreme corroder of aura, a medium of the copy. In many ways, this remains true today: the moving image is now more reproducible than ever, and many artists are keen to explore the ramifications of such a condition. However, it has become possible to speak about an “aura” in film and video in a number of ways: the contractual regulation of the limited edition model of sale, in which films and videos are sold as artificially rare art objects; the privileging of photochemical film in an age of digital transfers; the entrance of film into the museum; and the ephemerality of site-specific and performance-based forms of cinema. Unlike Sehgal’s performance, then, the moving image is all over the spectrum, from rare to reproducible, ranging from Luther Price’s handmade original 16mm prints to the nth-generation dub of Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia (1957) available for download on Karagarga.

All of this, of course, is a question of distribution. Digitization has unleashed a multiplicity of new ways of disseminating images and has retroactively assigned new meanings to those that already existed, such as the rental model of the film co-operatives. Distribution circuits, whether alternative or mainstream, have always been plural. But never has this plurality confronted artists and spectators more directly than it does today. In artists’ moving image, we now encounter the most highly regulated form of distribution in the history of cinema, the limited edition, alongside the most promiscuous form of distribution in that same history, the BitTorrent tracker. Christian Marclay sells The Clock (2010) to museums for $500,000 while Kenneth Goldsmith makes hundreds of works available at no cost – though in many cases, illegally – on UbuWeb. Images have never been as free and as controlled as they are today. More than ever, it is clear that distribution is not simply a neutral conduit that transports films and videos from their makers to their viewers, but rather a key element of how we encounter, make sense of, and write the history of film and video. To think about distribution is to engage with the economics, aesthetics, and politics of moving images.

Despite its central role, distribution gets far less attention in critical writing on artists’ moving image than do production and reception. Matters of economics and circulation have often taken a backseat to analyses focusing on form, style, aesthetics, and authorship. This is perhaps because of an aversion to speaking about money, something that nonetheless remains important even in spheres of filmmaking far from the big business of commercial cinema. In the introduction to Julia Knight and Peter Thomas’ recent book, Reaching Audiences: Distribution and Promotion of Alternative Moving Image, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith notes this absence: “Sometimes it seems as if, in the world of cinema and the moving image, commodities do indeed mysteriously get to market all on their own.” But, of course, they do not.

The plurality of distribution mechanisms available to artists and filmmakers today makes this mediating process harder and harder to ignore, as does the number of individuals who have taken it up as a central point of interrogation. As Jörg Heiser puts it, “Over recent decades artists seem to have become increasingly aware of the issue of circulation not only as a practical social and economic one, external to their actual work, but an aesthetic one, at the core of it.” This is echoed in David Joselit’s recent book, After Art, which explores how artists engage with networks of circulation. Though neither Heiser nor Crimp deals with film or video at any length, contemporary artists’ moving image offers ample evidence of this kind of engagement with distribution circuits: Aram Bartholl installs a DVD burner into a wall at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York (DVD Dead Drop, 2012), Philippe Parreno hands out DVDs of The Boy From Mars (2005) that dissolve after two days, e-flux sets up a video rental library, TheCremaster Cycle (1994–2002) and Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait (2006) play in commercial cinemas, Hito Steyerl defends in the poor image, and Eileen Simpson and Ben White rediscover a public domain film and reintroduce it into distribution in the pirate markets of Amman, Jordan (Struggle in Jerash, 2009). Heiser once more: “Classic Modernism was dominated by a notion of production that focused attention on artistic authorship (corresponding to the rise of mass industrial production); Postmodernism described the artist as an eclectic bricoleur (corresponding in turn to the rise of consumer society); currently we find ourselves in a period of capitalism where the key factor shaping both economics and culture is circulation.” It’s time that criticism caught up. Reaching Audiences is an excellent beginning, but much more work remains to be done.

Peter Decherney writes in his new book, Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet, that “[n]ew media require new ethics.” Indeed they do. New media also require new thinking about concepts like originality, authenticity, access, rarity, and reproducibility – in short, about distribution. Over the next month, I will be posting a series of short texts on matters related to the dissemination and circulation of artists’ moving image in this space. Throughout, I hope to unfold some of the aspirations, restrictions, practical concerns, political motivations, and utopian projects to be found in the realm of distribution, too often considered to be a dry and boring topic. Stay tuned.

Erika Balsom is assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University and author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art, forthcoming this spring from Amsterdam University Press. Her brief history of the limited edition as a model of sale, “Original Copies: How Film and Video Became Art Objects,” will appear in Cinema Journal this summer.


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