DUPLICATE HISTORY  -  Sunday December 4th, 2011

Transferral of “history” through grime in a latex sheet: Otero Pailos and the Doge’s Palace… The inspiration for this post was issue 17 of Fulcrum, The AA’s Free Weekly by Roberta Marcaccio and Pier Vittorio Aureli. The PDF is available here.

In his 2009 artwork The Ethics of Dust Jorge Otero Pailos painted a wall of the Doge’s Palace with latex, which bonded to the centuries of pollution built up on the stonework. When the sheet was removed the wall was miraculously cleaned. By contrast the latex had absorbed 500 years of dirt and grime — that is, it had absorbed all physical evidence of the wall’s age, and therefore its history.

This transferral raises a serious question about the value of the sheet: since the Doge’s Palace is UNESCO World Heritage, does the latex now have to be protected and preserved in the same manner? The answer to this question really depends on what you think constitutes “history”.

In Mario Carpo’s The Alphabet and the Algorithm he describes the mechanical process of standardisation and mechanisation of products during the early modernist period. Namely, he refers to Coca-Cola as being a commodity chemically standardised to guarantee exactly the same taste in every bottle. Before the modern era many products – wine, for example – varied drastically in quality because of the artisanal methods used to make them, but with mass-production came too the consumer desire for absolute similarity and therefore certainty.

The makers of whiskey had a problem: the product was not seen as “dependable” (or safe), because of its association with Prohibition by public perception, which linked it with unsavoury conditions of manufacture and wildly variable quality. In order for whiskey to become a recognisably modern product, it needed to be standardised. In the case of Seagram’s this was achieved through “blending”, where the mean of any number of variable products resulted in a fairly standardised end-result. It is no surprise that the Seagram’s slogan employed from the 30s to 70s was “choose Seagram’s, and be sure”.

Carpo shifts tack and describes the common inkjet printer. With the help of a blank, formless medium (in this case white paper) can we reproduce practically any colour from nature using only three or four inks. He then speculates that a similar matrix could be used to standardise the production of mineral water. A machine loaded with the spectrum of chemical elements (probably not even the entire table) and hooked up to a supply of distilled water (blank medium) could then, in principle, duplicate in any volume the precise chemical composition of any mineral source. Of course, this “water printer” would not only allow you to reproduce existing waters, it would allow you to generate a near infinite number of new waters not found in nature. This is also true of the printer – which can produce 100 of the same image, or 100 unique images, but this is untrue of the whiskey and cola examples.

Coming back to the transferral of “history” from the wall to the latex sheet, I would argue that the only value of the pollution trapped in the sheet is its authentic chemical signature. Otherwise, it doesn’t have any tangible value – it isn’t capable of telling you anything about the past beyond perhaps how dirty the palace has got over the last few centuries. I suppose the historian might speculate about the origin of the dirt, and the nature of the society that produced it, but frankly without scientific analysis there’s not much more to be gleamed from the grime.

The rub lies in the fact that by analysing the dirt and producing hard data about its composition it opens the door, presumably, for its reproduction. Why should Vegas stop with plaster and concrete imitations? Wouldn’t authentically duplicated history make the experience so much more special? This chemical imitation of history presents us with a problem. In the case of ink colours, whiskey or bottled water, there is no recognisable original and duplicate (since all products are generated from the same parametric recipe). In the case of history, when we no longer have the ability to distinguish the authenticity of smog deposited onto a wall it completely destroys the science of chronological dating (which the perennial revival of architectural styles has already rendered hard enough to do accurately by eye anyway). By distancing the dirt from any reliable source (the veracity of the Doge’s wall) we cast it adrift. That is, when it is relieved from its context it is also relieved of its historical value.

In this respect, it should probably be compared to Baudrillard’s story of the military doctor trying to determine the madness of a soldier. He adopts the same attitude as Corporal Clinger in the TV show M*A*S*H, “if he can act crazy that well, its because he is”. Without this logical fallacy always resulting in a valid truth the doctor would be destroyed, as medicine would have no way of distinguishing the real from the simulated symptoms of madness. The only conclusion, if one were able to mechanically standardise the flawless reproduction of historical evidence, would have to be that “if it is real enough to fool science, its because it is real”.

And at that point we would be in the business of duplicating history.

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