|In recent history, outmoded technologies have often come to rest in museums, perhaps a fate that awaits museums themselves. A selection could be preserved (...) in a 'Museum of museums' as examples of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century follies marking the triumph of consumer society. (Alan Morton)1
Jim Jarmush's recent film about a young Japanese couple roaming America in search of their cultural roots in the land of Rock'n Roll tells us just about everything we would prefer not to know about electronically implanted culture in the last quarter of the 20th century. Blue-jeaned and T-shirted, their health in the process of ruin through obligatory consumtion of Copsi-Cola, trade-marked hamburgers and dope; posture, hair style, vocabulary and expectations pulled down - like a menu on a Macintosh - from the satellite music videos, the electronic offspring of the industrial age rummage in the ruins of America for the originals of the cultural images they have experienced only through loud-speakers and television. But there is no America like the mediated 'America' of a thousand movies and a million TV images - and nobody owns it, least of all the Americans. 'America' is the name we give to this image culture because that is where it all started.
Recording devices have changed cultural time and expanded the 'present' to include everything recorded - chemically, mechanically or electronically. The ghosts of long-dead dancers continue to entertain us on late-night television, faces from l9th century Paris mingle in our cultural subconcious with Madonna's breasts and Elvis's belly. The past only begins with that which is experienced personally, Mom's 'Woodstock' reminiscences or last years summer romance - things that will die with us. Mediated images, in whatever form, belong to everybody. 'Woodstock', for example, was a media event in which 300,000 people personally shared an experience which belongs in the past while 'Woodstock', in the form of mediated images, remains permanently present. Private documentation - the snapshot, the family video - can be used to attempt to escape from history into the eternal mediated present but, being documents of an unmediated private world, enter the present only as evidence of the universality of imaging equipment. Mediated images are more real than real experience because they belong always in the present - being located neither in time or space but in the culture itself.
The discomfort that fails to discourage millions of holiday-makers from surging annually in search of the brochure beaches they have been promised ought to give us a hint about the disjunction between the image and its source. Everyone knows that the travel brochure photographs portray an ideal beach (photographed on a sunday morning and in the off season) but the image - mediated as it is - is more powerful than its original. This power does not come from the infinite complexity of associations that have created the modern 'holiday' (from 19th century upper middle-class spa/sporting/seaside holidays to Rousseau-like fantasies of noble brown islanders splashing in an unindustrialised paradise) but from the marketing of these associations as images. The fact that the advertised paradise is shared, not with noble brown islanders, but with several thousand other pink and perspiring industrial workers or that many of the cultural treasures, which tourists queue for hours to see, are actually copies because of the damage caused by the millions of visitors to the originals has not had any noticeable effect on the volume of tourism - quite the contrary!
The leisure and holiday industry has grown parallel with the development of the popular picture media - the National Geographic and similar magazines, film travelogues, TV nature and ecology programs and of course popular TV dramas and feature films exploiting romantic settings usually in the presence of conspicuous wealth and glamour. It is especially ironic that beautifully photographed Jacques Cousteau-type TV documentaries illustrating the ecological problems caused by industrial prosperity and mass tourism tend to attract tourists to these beautiful but endangered places. Images are more powerful than text and tend to override the intended message . Pictures, in their tactile immediacy, remain in the foreground - in the present, while the texts, being about persuasion, explanation, description, ideas, lose definition and slide into history.
The power of the mediated image is nowhere more clearly evident than in the phenomenon of the 'Theme Park'. Every year Disneyland and its clones attract millions of families eager to be together with Micky and Donald, to visit the enchanted forests and haunted castles they have seen so often on TV and in the Cinema. Taking as its sources comic books, cartoon films and fairy tales (with liberal spicing of soft-core Sci-Fi and NASA hype), the 'Theme' Park is a plywood and polyester reconstruction of printed pages and TV flicker - a neatly symetrical inversion of the real and its reflection. Of course nobody is fooled by the actors in padded costumes or the papier maché palaces any more than sun-seeking beach tourists are 'fooled' by travel brochures. Everyone is a knowing player in a sophisticated cultural game and most go away happy, but the question hangs in the air - just what is it in which they have been taking part? For the tourist on the beach at Rimini this is the scene of the original of the brochure photo while the visitor to Disneyland experiences the material realisation of millions of printed, filmed and televised pictures. But Disneyland adds a new twist to the game by becoming itself a mediated image - through advertising and PR - and the player, by paying at the gate, can visit the 'original' of the publicity pictures - which contain of course the original images upon which the whole enterprise is based ... etc.
Museums of science and technology have been with us since the late 19th century and were still astonishing us with their marvels untill about 1950 when television began to steal their magic. But at the same time television, and the new media generally, have enhanced the fascination with technolgy and science and there is now a keen interest in developing hi-tech parks with a Sci-Fi bias that promise a glimpse into the techno-marvelous future. But such institutions or enterprises are not the place to discover new or even historic technology but where the simulations of things we have already seen elsewhere are located. These parks also, invariably, have something of the 'self-fullfilling-prophesy' about them since, although clearly rooted in the recent past, they project images of the present passed off as 'the future' and thereby have a predictive function - a kind of cybernetic feedback - in which our future will be influenced by 'the future' as seen in the park. Eventually, of course, the publicity machinery of the park will market these images and the park itself will become the 'original' of the pictures popping up in press and TV.
The industrial world of things has been replaced by the electronic world of connections - the space between things - and that connecting space is filled with images. Objects, things, products have become, in our post-industrial culture, more like concrete representations of their images seen in one kind of medium or other and Jarmusch's Japanese teenagers, roaming the shabby streets of Memphis searching for their cultural heritage, are treating America as a kind of museum where the physical originals of the TV images are kept. It is a museum made of the settings for a thousand Westerns, gangster movies and TV series sprinkled with shrines to culture heroes like Elvis and James Dean. Unlike the traditional museum, America reeks of the nostalgia attached to places which one can identify as belonging to one's own past, even if this connection is entirely through products of the modern media. This mediated 'America' constitutes the connecting link between the industrial past and the electronic present - an industrial past that is vanishing so rapidly that whole cities have become, within a couple of decades, derelict shadows of their former power and energy, as a visit to Pittsburg, Liverpool or Lille will easily confirm. In fact the whole of Eastern Europe, the one-time East Block, is a virtual museum of industrial life and the late-communist program can be read, at least in part, as a failed attempt to preserve 'proletarian' industrial culture against the onslaught of bourgeois consumerism. But no amount of 'thumb-in-the-dyke' stoicism and repression could stem the flood-tide of images which have swept away the seamy but real substance of industrial culture and replaced it with the glittering fantasy of the culture of the mediated image.
This cultural shift from a language-oriented industrial linearity to an image-oriented electronic simultaneity has brought about a particularly difficult situation for visual artists - and for the commercial/academic infrastructure of distribution, display, marketing, mediation and preservation that has grown up around art production. The studios of most artists are littered with lavishly illustrated art books, magazines, exhibition catalogues, museum catalogues - as are the living rooms of collectors and offices of curators and museum directors - but no individual person has ever seen all of the actual artworks with which they are familiar from the illustrations in these publications. Museums seem to have accepted this situation and many of them, including museums of contemporary art, are preparing video-disk presentations of their collections which will permit the ever-increasing numbers of visitors to peruse the collection without the neccessity of actually seeing the works - or dirtying the parquet. The scene of action in the visual arts has shifted and it is taken for granted that, in order to be properly seen, a new artwork must be reproduced as an image of itself in one or other of the media - preferably in the context of a museum collection or in a major art magazine. Naturally artists take this into account and the documentation of the work, or exhibition, has become of equal importance to the making of the work. And, since the place of art is increasingly seen as in the media, more and more artists are working, whenever they can, directly with (or within) the transient ambience of these media - video, digital systems (computers etc.), communications technology and mass media (print, TV, radio etc.) ... or with installations (and performances) which, once they have been dismantled (or performed), exist entirely in the form of their documentation. Art museums find themselves therefore in a schizophrenic situation, being at once the repository of artworks as objects and a databank of artworks as documentation - and that, in contemporary terms, it is probably not the artworks on the walls but those on the computer- or video-disk that have the most relevance.
The difficulties of presentation with which museums have been struggling in collecting and showing video and other 'media' works is symptomatic of the crisis confronting all object-oriented institutions (and individuals) in the new age of electronic simultaneity. Digital and video works do not have an original to which they refer - the 100th copy of a computer disk is identical with first copy and, after initial loss of a generation or two in editing, all copies of a video tape are the same. Not only that, everything that can be shown on a video display terminal is copyable and if it has been shown on TV has certainly been copied hundreds of times - copyright is a thing of the past. Art, like almost everything else in our culture, is experienced more and more through some medium or other - print, networked broadcasting systems or recorded images and sounds played back through electrical devices. A museum visit is, as with Jarmusch's teenagers, more like a walk in the park or going to the theatre or cinema - a rather sentimental leisure-time social activity. In this sense art has been going through a steady process of de-materialisation throughout the 20th century just as images have steadily infringed on language as the material of thought. The French writer Duhamel (quoted by Walter Benjamin) who complained "I am not longer able to think what I want to think. The moving pictures have set themselves in place of my thoughts" 2 had already noticed by 1930 that the familiar linearity of thought-expressed-as-language was being subverted by the power of image-making technology.
In a world in which meaning has become more and more the property of images and with things increasingly relegated to the role of 'original', language loses the ability to negotiate or explain and is reduced to a diagnostic role - like a thermometer in the body of the culture - and texts, like this one, can really only express their irrelevance. The great libraries of human knowledge in the form of texts (Karl Popper's World III) and the great museums of human culture in the form of objects no longer have their previous power in the electronic age. While the printed page has become little more than a printout of the text-as-image seen on the monitor screen and on-line data-banks are rapidly reducing the library to a mere depository for books as objects, museums are perceived more and more as buildings in which the originals of millions of glossy illustrations can be experienced. Even well-meaning attempts by curatorial staff at displaying these objects and artifacts from the past in active environments, with costumed actors and working machinery, only result in creating the impression of being on the set of a costume film or TV series - of being a participant in the creation of the past as it is experienced in the movies. Ex-president Reagan's problem in differentiating between the war films made by he and his colleagues and war as experienced by real people is becoming an increasing problem for all of us.
We are experiencing this cultural shift as a condensation of time - McLuhan's implosion - but it is more likely that the 'time-obsession' of industrial culture, a relatively short interval in human history, is finally disolving into something more like a 'steady-state' concept of time - being no longer related to working hours or holiday months or even human life-times but to the life of the culture or society itself. Inside our media-bubble we can no longer properly differentiate between the real and its shadow and the regressive nature of this incestuous cycle of image-making, image-manipulatiuon, image-marketing, which includes the manipulation of experience by creating 'real' environments that simulate mediated images and products which consist almost entirely of their advertised packaging, threatens our culture with the sterility of perpeptual feedback. Out of this seething sea of images, infinite in their variety, a mosaic is beginning to form - a mega-image that, being comprised of pictures of everything, makes every alternative not only superfluous but inconceivable. Rather than achieving a multi-dimensionality through the successes of electronic technology we may be facing a terminal one-dimensionality, a reflective surface reflecting the mirror opposite in infinite regress. A terrible monotony looms in which the world and its reflection threaten to merge into a kind of CNN of the mind.
1. Alan Morton, Tomorrow's Yesterdays: science museums and the future, in 'The Museum Time Machine' , Robert Lumley ed. , Routledge: London 1988.
2. Georges Duhamel, Scènes de la future, Paris 1930. (Quoted by Walter Benjamin in 'The Artwork in the Age of Its Technical Reproducability').