...What makes it just so bad is difficult to pinpoint precisely, but going with what Plato et al said it appears to have to do partly with the belief that the copy is less special than the original (in the sense that there can be
x amount of copies but only one original); partly with the idea thatit is less genuine than the original (in that it bears neither a relationship to thesocial and artistic context of the time nor to the artist’s biography); to some extentwith the notion that it is of a lesser quality than the original; and to a certain degree with the tautological assumption that it is not as original as the original. In short, what the copy lacks is authenticity; it is per definition inauthentic –or is it?
Ralf Brög’s Zero RPM Records are copies. They are copies of phonograph records.Brög has coloured the vinyl plates with wax crayons, scanned them, resizedthem, and printed them. Copies, plain and simple. It is true that they lack thequality of the originals. Playing, as the title suggests, at zero revolutions perminute, they produce no sound whatsoever. You cannot play Brög’s rendering ofPrince’s Purple Rain, nor can you listen to his adaptation of Isolde’s Liebestod.They are paper printouts, after all, not vinyl. Similar questions can be asked withregards to genuineness and originality.
The copy of Isolde’s Liebestod does not spring from the soul of the artist in thesame sense that the source record does, after all. But does all this necessarilymean that Brög’s copies are less authentic?
Arguably, when measured in the terms of the original, Brög’s rendition ofPurple Rain lacks the authenticity of Prince’s song. It lacks the vinyl’s sonic quality,its musical originality, its context. But what Brög demonstrates is that a copycan be more than simply the duplication of a particular quality or idea. It canalso be the creation of other qualities and other ideas. Brög’s Radioaktivitätis comparable to Kraftwerk’s, but is not reducible to it. It is another kind of recording,produced in another social and artistic context, from another material,adopting other kinds of aesthetic strategies and affective registers, invokingalternative kinds of experiences.
Zero RPM Records cannot (nor does it want to) render songs audible; but theydo make visible rhythms. By waxing the original records and scanning theresults, the artist turns the grooves of the vinyl into lines; lines thicker and thinner,lines further apart and nearer to one another, distributed evenly and unevenly.The deep bass of James Figurine’s house record Forgive Your Friendsresonates as repetitive even lines. The complex, prolonged rhythm of Wagner’sLiebestod finds its form in an intricate network of thin, uneven strings. In thedance classic Higher State of Consciousness, the high pitched climax translatesas a centrifuge, rapidly revolving inwards – into the consciousness indeed.Function becomes form; music becomes painting (or photography actually, butit looks far more like painting). The duplication of one quality or idea provesto be the invention of another. In Brög’s work, the copy is always already an‘original’.
Every work of art, whether it is an installation or a film or a painting or a book,initiates its own viewing practice, it’s own experiential register. It draws up acontract, as it were, that tells you what you, as a viewer, or reader, or listener,can expect and not expect.
A tragedy, for instance, prepares another kind of contract than a romantic comedy: the former tends to stipulate that the worldis malevolent, while the latter will suggest that the world is good natured;a tragedy will indicate that love may turn into hatred, whilst there are very fewromantic comedies that would sign off on that premise. Just imagine ascrewball comedy where Jimmy Stewart abuses Grace Kelly, or a Notting Hillwhere Julia Roberts severely traumatises Hugh Grant – it’s almost inconceivable.As epistemological categories, copies and originals also initiate alternateviewing practices.
A copy requires to be understood in relationship to an originaloutside of it, whereas an original can be taken on its own terms. Both copyand original, the Zero RPM Records thus imply two conflicting experientialregisters at once. On the one hand, they ask us to contemplate their relationshipto the music, the material and the production context of the outside theyinfer: synthesizers and guitars, tactility and analogy, minimal conceptualismand MTV, the GDR and Reaganomics. On the other hand, however, they inviteus to appreciate their aesthetic within its own terms: as modernist experimentswith color gradations, as abstract cosmoscapes of mysterious structures andpatterns, of unsolved riddles and uncharted possibilities.
They simultaneously demand that you draw on your knowledge – of the contextof the original – and that you suspend it – so as to engage with the records aspaintings (or photographs, indeed). It is here that Brög’s copies are what youcould call, were it not such a problematic term, truly ‘original’. Throughout mostof the eighties and the nineties – a period generally referred to as postmodernism –artists copied away. Damien Hirst copied gold and diamonds and other expensivestuff; Cindy Sherman copied advertising; Jeff Koons copied kitsch objects;Thomas Demand copied copies. These copies triggered interesting questionsabout the nature of art as well as some feisty moral debates. In Demand’s case,they even problematized the distinction between the copy and the original itduplicated. But what they did not do was complicate the concept of the copyby demonstrating it is always already an ‘original’.
Indeed, their entire point was to deconstruct, to criticize or ridicule or celebrate,the quality or idea that they copied – the consumer society, gender relations,taste values, physicality, art.
They were not concerned with also constructing another quality, an alternativeidea. The Zero RPM Records do both at the same time. By copying vinyl records(and not cd’s or iTunes) they comment, if merely by association, on the interestthe so-called ‘digital natives’ presently express for analogue and tactile cultures.´(Tellingly, I first encountered Brög’s work in conjunction with the grainy, blackand-white photos of Anton Corbijn, another tangible aesthetic that so fascinatestoday’s youngsters, as the success of apps like hipstamatic and instagram demonstrates).However, they also construct another experience: that of the photographsin their own right. In fact, it is precisely because Brög’s records deconstructthat they are able to construct at all: the shape of the record allows for theglobular form, grooves enable the lines, rhythms, bass tones and pauses makepossible the networks, structures, patterns and membranes as well as the distributionof colours.
It is true that the prints Brög creates work on their own. They work exceptionallywell as modernist experiments with bricolage and narration and flatness; theywork as postmodern explorations of eclecticism, hybridity and fragmentation;they work as psychogeographical evocations of fictional worlds; they work asmeditations in the tradition of Rothko. But what the intertext adds to the experienceis alterity – it adds depth of meaning, of affect, of hapticity. The modernistproject of abstraction, for instance, is set against, or with, a nostalgia for a pastof tactile and corporeal experiences. The flat, non-narrative lines conjure upa world of their own, but they also invoke the world of the vinyl record wheresounds still have a physical reality, where signifiers and signifieds still relate.Here, abstraction becomes something extremely tangible. Similarly, the postmodernstrategies of pastiche are juxtaposed with a purity of form, infusing themultiple with the singular.
The cultural theorist Fredric Jameson once wrote that contemporary art lacksdepth because it no longer engages with reality but exclusively with representations.The hermeneutic gesture is supended. In the Zero RPM Records, however,there is depth precisely because of the engagement with representations.What Brög demonstrates is that the hermeneutic gesture isn’t so much suspendedas redirected, pointing elsewhere, revealing another, as of yet undiscovered‘depth’ (or, with Deleuze, a ‘line of flight’).
The question thus is not whether Brög’s records are authentic or not. It iswhether authenticity is the relevant term to describe this kind of art. If Brög’scopy is always already an ‘original’ – not the original but an original of anotherorder, one that springs not from what we perceive to be reality but from a representation– that means that the categories of specialness, genuineness, qualityand originality should also be reconceived – and with it authenticity. Whatwe mean when we say something is authentic, after all, is that it acts on its ownaccord, within its own sphere of signification. This is a determination we cannotpossible apply to the Zero RPM Records. They are authentic, in that they act ontheir own accord; and at the same time they aren’t, since part of their significationderives elsewhere. What these records, these ‘copies’, force us to do is tothink up a new critical vernacular. One that is able to accommodate its tangibleabstraction, its multiple singularity, its particular hermeneutic gesture. Art thatmakes us think; not of something we already know, but of things we haven’t yeta clue about. Copy or not, that is something very special indeed.
Ralf Brögs Zero RPM Records – In praise of the copy
by Timothy Vermeulen