Witnessing Simulacra

The idea that the new technological media have changed our idea of presence and witnessing has been observed before in art theory and criticism, in particular in regard to video. Wagner published the already-mentioned paper on this topic, “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence,” in which her motto is that “the arts require witnesses” (Wagner 2000, 61).

Wagner’s essay is a critical response to Rosalind Krauss’s contentious yet influential essay, “Video, The Aesthetics of Narcissism” (1976), where the latter argues that the medium of video art is marked by narcissism. Krauss criticizes artists in this relatively early phase of video for making mediocre artworks by using the medium simply as a technologically-inflected mirror for recording themselves. Her attack on video art revolves around Vito Acconci’s Centers, in which the artist is narcissistically pointing to the camera for about twenty minutes. Wagner counters Krauss’s reading of Acconci’s work by arguing that he is not so much pointing at himself but rather at us. Video, in other words, is not so much an egotistic but a public art form. Wagner discusses the early history of video in relation to performance art to provide more evidence for her argument that video is not just about private but also about public questions of presence and witnessing. Besides other works by Acconci, such as Following Piece (1972) and Undertone (1974), she also discusses Dan Graham’s video performance Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975-77). Graham is another early master of video art who understood the complexity of the medium and its effects on presence in all of its natural, mediated, and witnessed forms (see for instance his complex video scenarios in the Time Delay series).

The early history of video art, in other words, indisputably dealt with issues of presence and witnessing in the context of art and media. Yet Huyghe is part of a younger generation of artists who grew up in a highly-developed media culture far beyond television and video. As a child of the simulated real-time television and computer-generated internet-age, Huyghe is not so much concerned with “the rhetoric of presence” persé, but rather with the way in which a variety of — simultaneous — presences are shaped in media culture at large. In 1981, one year after Ted Turner founded the live-television news channel CNN, Baudrillard began to theorize the ever-increasing divide between reality and its representation in media society, whereby he observed that media stories began to generate their own reality, or “simulacrum.” Since the technological materialization of the computer, virtual reality and Internet, however, different theories of “simulacrum” are necessary.

In Simulation and its Discontents, Sherry Turkle argues not only that the technologies of simulation condition our culture, but also that the distinction between the real and the simulacrum (in Baudrillard’s sense of a copy without an original, or pseudo-event) has become inconsequential due to the ongoing interaction between them in which neither the one nor the other takes primacy. Paradoxical as it may sound, we live in the reality of what Turkle calls a “simulation culture (Turkle 2009).” While Huyghe’s billboard still closely relates to Baudrillard’s idea of simulacrum, The Third Memory correlates with tangled concepts of the “real” and the “virtual” implied in simulation culture.

Sjoukje van der Meulen