Media-auric effect

Huyghe’s work, therefore, can only be fully understood with the help of a conceptual framework that reflects on these interrelated kinds of natural, mediated, witnessed, and, as I argue, fictional presence. Witnessed presence, as I explained at the start of this essay, often bridges the other kinds of presence. If you can locate the position of the witness, then you can unravel the interrelations between, for instance, natural and mediated presence. This is the reason why the witness is such an important figure in Huyghe’s work.

In A Journey that wasn’t, the witness and witnessing again play a decisive role. Huyghe begins the film with the statement that the goal of the trip was “to verify its [the albino penguin’s] existence.” Verifying is the business of witnessing, and done by those who question mediated knowledge and want to see with their own eyes. Truth is again at stake in this work, as well as the authentication of truth against possible fictions. But this idea of witnessing is complicated by Huyghe in the multi-media spectacle he constructs around the journey, where the status of witness becomes a different one: the audience are the ‘real’ witnesses (eye-witnesses, that is) of a ‘real’ event (the musical) that nonetheless is already a radically mediated, if not fictionalized, event. The terms of mediated, witnessed, and natural presence, therefore, become blurred in this fictionalized version of the actual journey to the extent that it turns out to be almost impossible to determine its “YUTPA” configuration. As I have already explained in the context of Huyghe’s billboard, this kind of media witness who experiences real events first hand that are nevertheless essentially mediated, is a novel figure; the kind of witness that can only occur in a media society, and may well be the most common kind of witness in today’s state of such society. Consequently, we need to develop analytical skills to determine our own position as subject in this blurred situation.

In Huyghe’s A Journey that Wasn’t, however, yet another type of witness enters the game: the “inner-witness.” The inner witness is a concept of the Holocaust specialist Doru Laub, and should be understood within the broader context of the double meaning of witnessing: eye-witness testimony based on first-hand knowledge and bearing witness to something beyond recognition — like faith, or God (Oliver 2001, 17). This distinction between eyewitness and bearing witness, as Oliver Kelly explains in her book on witnessing, has to do with the tension between historical facts and psychoanalytical truth, the two extreme poles between which the whole process of witnessing takes place. The psychoanalytical idea of inner witness is closer to the concept of bearing witness than to the idea of the eye-witness, because it is based on imaginative power rather than verifiable proof. The inner-witness, therefore, could be productively related to the concept of fictional presence proposed here. This category of presence, and the different type of witness that belongs to it, are important for Huyghe’s work because in the end it does not really matter what ‘truth’ is in his work. This was already clear in The Third Memory, but it also comes through in Huyghe’s provocative statement about A Journey that Wasn’t:

“We don’t know if I even went there — if I saw this island or the albino penguin. Maybe I did. Maybe it’s a special effect. I don’t care."

It is art or fiction, after all, which made possible this “certain kind of reality,” this “additif of reality,” or fiction. And the accompanying concept of inner witness resembles something like artistic vision. Still, I am not sure whether we should take Huyghe on his word that it does make a scrap of a difference whether or not the penguin exists, as the rare animal certainly was the big trophy of the journey. It is interesting to note in this context that the veracity of the penguin touches upon Benjamin’s good-old question of aura. As one of the participating artists, Alexandra Mir, describes it: “[Huyghe] had declared a motive: to find an albino penguin on this journey. Considering his limited knowledge of navigation, the fact that penguins usually hang out in groups of several thousand, and that half of them are in the water most of the time, nobody really believed he would discover this penguin. It was a sort of joke on board, a kind of myth. Then of course he did find it, as if they had made an appointment to meet, and when that happened there was truly a magical aura around him.” (27)

Just as the aura sparked off by the actual encounter of Huyghe and the penguin, Benjamin’s concept of aura also relates to authentic presence. Benjamin, in fact, frames ‘aura’ in an almost existential, Heidegerrian sense of Dasein when he describes it as the experience of a wanderer resting on a mountain on a summer afternoon: “to follow a chain of mountains on the horizon or a branch casting its shadow on the person resting — that is what it means to breathe in the aura of these mountains, of this branch.” Benjamin relates this deep sense of presence in the ‘here’ and ‘now’ — with Being as such as Heidegger would say — to the experience of the original work of art, and then contrasts it with a technically reproduced artwork, or copy, which he identifies with the loss of aura.

However, Samuel Weber has proposed that the aura has not disappeared in the age of the media but only took on a different form. In this context, he introduces a neologism, the mediaura, which he describes as “auratic flashes and shadows that are not just produced and reproduced by the media but which are the media themselves (Weber 1996, p. 106).” Suggesting that the aura continues in the age of the (new) technological media, Weber concludes: “What is condemned in the age of technical reproducibility is not aura as such but the aura of art as a work of representation (1996, p. 107).” The penguin that suddenly occurs in A Journey that wasn’t is a case in point. Whether it is real or fake, the appearance of the penguin has an auratic effect; or rather, a mediauric effect. In Nevejan’s terms, we can conclude that Huyghe plays out the complex tensions between natural, mediated and witnessed presence (in which the riddle of the ‘real’ penguin is but one factor in a dense cloud of meanings within the narrative structure of the work), but it is the power of fiction that gives the film its mediauric quality in the end. Or?

Note 27: See

Sjoukje van der Meulen