The decay of the aura and the decline of importance in cult value is accompanied by a natural push against the current; manifested in attempts at keeping alive what remains of the original. Just like people’s interest in vintage clothing or using analog cameras, old trends die-hard. While Benjamin’s aura cannot necessarily be described as trendy, the idea still stands. Not only in the art world but also in a larger cultural context, there is a lingering fascination with cult value in its original incarnation. This fascination has led to a modern experimentation with cult value that is noteworthy due to the interesting ways in which such experiments attempt to reject the presently inevitable digital domination.
In her article “True Blue, Or the Work of Images in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” Jennifer Allen lists an incident involving fashion photographer Alexi Lubomirski as the driving inspiration for the article itself. On one of Lubomirski’s shoots, the entire crew was asked to place a blue sticker on their smartphone’s cameras in order “to guarantee the secrecy—and the later surprise—of the portraits…The blue sticker would appear to preserve the cult value of Lubomirski’s photographs: hiding them and thus preventing any exhibition ‘leaks’ which might reduce their cult value in any way before the photographs are eventually seen by a broad public.” Allen was eventually e-mailed the photograph showing simply the colour blue; the only possible documentation of the event under such circumstances. The act of taking the blue photograph may be the most interesting aspect of this anecdote. Even in an effort to create cult value, the contemporary pull toward exhibition remains prevalent. While the sticker made it impossible to exhibit the event by photographing it, the photographs of the sticker stand as a visual symbol for the event, exemplifying an attempt at exhibition value nonetheless.
The infamous Berlin nightclub, known as “Berghain,” routinely engages in a concept similar to that behind Lubomirski’s shoot. Once accepted at the door, Berghain bouncers are instructed to place a sticker on everyone’s smartphone cameras. Sound familiar? “The strict no photo, video, or audio policy at the temple of techno makes it nearly impossible to gaze inside the walls without being there yourself, and this sense of mystery has only elevated the club’s mythical status.” While Berghain’s sticker policy has certainly created a curious crowd, it has also, like Lubomirski’s shoot, exemplified the rejection of cult value. Apart from the countless bathroom selfies that made it out of the building unnoticed by a staff that is simply not allowed to follow customers into the restrooms, an Instagram account has come into existence “called @berghainsticker. [The account] skirts around the no-photo policy by posting pictures of the colourful stickers that cover your phone’s camera when you enter the club.” Once again, out of an attempt at preserving cult value rise desperate efforts at redistributing an experience to a wider audience; this time not just in one shade of blue but with a spectrum of colours.
Turning to an example closer to the art world, one of late artist Chris Burden’s performance pieces revisits the idea of the cult using the artist’s own body. In this piece, Burden allegedly spent three weeks on a rectangular platform set so high against the gallery wall that no one could know for sure if he was actually there. Here, Burden himself becomes the artwork, hidden away from the public eye in a secretive existence. Intriguingly, “Burden heard one young man telling his friend that the feeling in the gallery was almost spiritual: “He can hear us, and he doesn’t answer, but he can’t help listening…it’s like God.” This attitude draws a parallel between Burden’s performance and the way cult value encourages the viewing of art: in a contemplative manner bordering on spirituality. However, the performance was also accompanied by instances of rejection as “ visitors tried to take running jumps up the wall in an attempt to see Burden.” While allowing for an atmosphere of devotion and contemplation, cult takes away the ability to understand visually. Not only is this a human desire that can be dated back to the creation of idols to visually represent abstraction, but it becomes intensified even further in the context of the digital era. Knowing about something is no longer satisfactory in a time where people are not only able to see everything, but also to control all the visual content available to them through editing, redistributing, reproducing etc. It seems that the contemporary individual is curious about cult value, yet incapable of allowing the conditions for its proliferation.
Image courtesy of the author.