BORIS GROYS: The Topology of Contemporary Art PART 2: MULTIPLE MODERNITIES. 5. MONICA AMOR: On the Contingency of. Contemporary Art in Time” considers some examples, and conse- quences, of .. Cf. Boris Groys, “The Topology of Contemporary Art,” in Antinomies of Art. Synopsis: To understand the qualitative properties of “Contemporary Art”, the Author examines the interplay between Modern & Post-modern.

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Boris Groys Born in in Petersburg. Lives in Koeln, Germany.

The Topology of Contemporary Art: Boris Groys

Today, the term “contemporary art” does not simply designate art that is produced in our time. Rather, today’s contemporary art demonstrates the way in which the contemporary as such shows itself — the act of presenting the present.

In this respect contemporary art is different from Modern art that was directed toward the future and it is different also from post-modern art that was a historical reflection on the Modern project. The contemporary “contemporary art” privileges the present in respect to the future and to the past.

So to rightly characterize the nature of contemporary art it seems to be necessary to situate it in its relationship to the Modern project and to its post-modern reevaluation.

The central notion of Modern art was the notion of creativity. The genuinely creative artist was supposed to effectuate a radical break with the past, to erase, to destroy the past, to achieve a zero point of artistic tradition — and by doing so to give a new start to a new future.

The traditional, mimetic artwork ar subjected to the iconoclastic, destructive work of analysis and reduction. It is also no accident that the vocabulary constantly used by the historical avant-garde is the language of iconoclasm. Abolishing traditions, breaking with conventions, destroying old art and groyss out-dated values were the slogans of the day.

The practice of the historical avant-garde was based on the equation that was already formulated by Bakunin, Stirner and Nietzsche: The iconoclastic images of destruction and reduction were to;ology to serve as the icons of the future. The artist was supposed to embody “active nihilism” — the nothingness that originates everything. But how can an individual artist prove that he or she is really, genuinely creative?

Obviously, an artist can show it only by demonstrating how far he or she has gone along the way of reduction and destruction of the traditional image, how radical, how iconoclastic his or her work is.

But to recognize a certain image as a truly iconoclastic one conteporary have to be able to compare it with the traditional images, with the icons of the past. Otherwise the work of symbolic destruction would remain unaccounted for. The bodis of the iconoclastic, of the creative, of the new requires a permanent comparison with the traditional, with the old.

The iconoclastic and the new can only be recognized by the art historically informed, museum-trained gaze.

This is why, paradoxically, the more you want to free yourself from the art tradition, the more you become subjected to the logic of the art historical narrative and to museum collecting.

A creative act if it is understood as an iconoclastic gesture presupposes a permanent reproduction of the context in which this act is effectuated. And this kind of reproduction infects the creative act toopology the beginning. We can even say that, under the condition of the modern museum, the newness of newly produced art is not established post factum-as a result of a comparison with old art.

Rather, the comparison takes place before the emergence of a new, radical, iconoclastic artwork-and virtually produces this new artwork. The modern artwork is re-presented and re-cognized before it is produced. And that means further: The modernist production by negation is governed by reproduction of the means of comparison — of a certain historical narrative, of a certain artistic medium, of a certain visual language, of a certain fixed cnotemporary of comparison.

This paradoxical character of the Modern project was recognized and described by a number of the theoreticians and reflected on by many artists in the 60s and 70s. The recognition of this inner repetitiveness of the Modern project led to a redefinition of this project during the recent decades and to a post-modern thematization of the problematics of repetition, iteration, reproduction.

Not accidentally, the famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin became so influential during these post-modern decades. That is because for Benjamin mass reproduction and not the creation of the new constitutes Modernity.


As we all know, in his essay Benjamin introduces the concept of aura to describe the difference between original and copy under the conditions of perfect technical reproducibility.

Since then, the concept of aura has made an astonishing philosophical carrier, yet largely as part of the famous formula of the “loss of the aura” characterizing the fate of the original in the modern age.

The “loss of the aura” is described by Benjamin precisely as a loss of fixed, repetitive context of an artwork. According to Benjamin, in our age the artwork leaves its original context and begins to circulate anonymously in the networks of mass communication, reproduction and distribution. In other words, Benjamin describes the production of the mass culture as operating by a reversal of the “high” Modernist art strategy: In Modern age you negate either an artwork or its aura, its context — but not both of them simultaneously.

The usual accent on the loss of the aura is, on one hand, totally legitimate, and certainly in tune with the overall intention of Benjamin’s text. But maybe not the loss of the aura but, rather, its emergence gives us the opportunity to reach a better understanding of the processes taking place in the today’s art, operating predominantly with the new media and techniques of reproduction; that is, to a better understanding, not only of the destiny of the original, but also of the destiny of the copy in our culture.

In fact, the aura, as described by Benjamin, only comes into being thanks to the modern technique of reproduction. That is, it emerges precisely at the very moment it is getting lost. And it is born precisely for the same reason it is lost. Indeed, in his text Benjamin starts from the possibility of a perfect reproduction which would no longer allow any “material,” visually recognizable difference between original and copy.

The question formulated by Benjamin is namely: Benjamin’s answer to that question is, of course, no. The -at least potential- erasure of all visually recognizable differences between original and copy does not eliminate another difference existing between them which, albeit invisible, is none the less decisive: And the original has an aura because it has a fixed context, a well defined place in space, and through that particular place it is inscribed also in history as a singular, original object.

The copy is, on the contrary, without a place and ahistorical -being right from the beginning a potential multiplicity. Reproduction means dislocation, deterritorialisation, it transports artworks to networks of topologically indeterminable circulation.

Benjamin’s corresponding formulations are very well known: But if the difference between original and copy is only a topological one — that means if it is only a difference between a closed, fixed, marked, auratic context and an open, unmarked, profane space of anonymous mass circulation — then not only the operation of dislocation and deterritorialisation of the original is possible, but also the operation of relocation and reterritorialisation of the copy.

We are not only able to produce a copy out of an original by a technique of reproduction but we also are able to produce an original out of a copy by a technique of topological relocation of this copy — by a technique of installation. The installation that nowadays became the leading art form in the framework of contemporary art operates as a reversal of reproduction.

The installation takes a copy out of an allegedly unmarked, open space of anonymous circulation and puts it — even if only temporarily — in a fixed, stable, closed context of topologically well-defined “here and now”. And that means that all the objects placed in an installation are originals, even when — or precisely when — they circulate outside of the installation as copies. Artworks in an installation are originals for one simple topological reason: The installation is, above all, a socially codified variation of individual flaneurship as it was described by Benjamin, and therefore, a place for the aura, for “profane illumination.

The Topology of Contemporary Art: Boris Groys | alfredcrucible

What differentiates contemporary art from previous times is only the fact that the originality of a work in our time is not established depending on its own form, but through its inclusion in a certain context, in a certain installation, through its topological inscription.

Benjamin overlooked the possibility — and even unavoidability — of reauratisations, relocations and new topological inscriptions of a copy because he shared with high modern art the belief in a unique, normative context of art. Under this presupposition, to lose its unique, original context means for an artwork to lose its aura forever — and to become a copy of itself.

A reauratisation of an individual artwork would require a sacralisation of the whole profane space of topologically undetermined mass circulation of a copy — which would be a totalitarian, fascist project. And that is the main problem of Benjamin’s thinking: And he insists on the permanent visual recognizability, on the self-identity of a copy as it circulates in our contemporary culture.


But both of these main presuppositions in Benjamin’s text are questionable. In the framework of contemporary culture an image is permanently circulating from one medium to another medium, and from one closed adt to another closed context. A certain film footage can be shown in a cinema theater, then converted to a digital form and appear on somebody’s web site, or be shown during a conference as an illustration, or watched privately on a TV — screen in a person’s living room, or put in a context of a museum installation.

In this way through different contexts and media this film footage is transformed by different program languages, different softwares, different framings contempkrary the screen, different placement in an installation space, etc. Are we dealing all the cobtemporary with the same film footage? Is it the same copy of the same copy of the same original? The topology of today’s networks of communication, of generation, translation and distribution of images tppology extremely heterogeneous. The images are all the time transformed, rewritten, reedited, reprogrammed contwmporary their way through these networks — and become also contfmporary be visually different by every such a step.

Their status as copies becomes therefore to be just a cultural convention — as it was earlier the status of the original. Benjamin suggested that the new technology is able to make a copy more and more identical to the original. The contrary is the case. The contemporary technology thinks in generations. And to transmit an information from one generation of hardware and software to a next generation means to transform it in a significant way. The metaphoric use of the notion of “generation” as it practiced now in a fopology of technology is very revealing.

All of us know what does it mean to transmit a certain cultural heritage form one generation of the students to another generation. The situation of the “mechanical reproduction” in the context of, let us say, contemporary Internet looks no less difficult — maybe even more difficult. We are as unable to stabilize a copy as a copy — as we are unable to stabilize an original as an original.

There are no eternal copies as there are no eternal originals. Reproduction is as much infected by originality as originality is infected by reproduction. By circulating through the different contexts a copy becomes a series of different originals. Every change of context, every change of medium can be interpreted as topo,ogy negation of a status of a copy as a copy — as an essential rupture, as a new start that open a new future.

In this sense, a copy is never really a copy — but rather always a new original in a new context. Every copy is by itself a flaneur — and experiences time and again its own “profane illuminations” turning it into an original. Cobtemporary loses old auras — and gets new auras. It remains maybe the same copy — topologh it becomes different originals. That shows that a post-modern project to reflect on the repetitive, iterative, reproductive character of an image is as paradoxical as the modern project of recognizing the original and the new.

That is also why post-modern art is able to look very new even if — or actually because — it is directed against the notion of the new. Our decision to recognize a certain image as an original or as a copy is dependent on the context — on the scene where this decision is taken.

And this decision is always a contemporary decision — a decision that belongs not to the past and not to the future but to the present. That is topologg I would argue that the installation is the leading art form of contemporary art. Brois installation demonstrates a certain selection, a certain chain of choices, a certain logic of inclusions and exclusions.

An by doing so an installation manifests here and now certain decisions about what is old and what is new, what is an original and what is a bris. Every large exhibition or installation is made with the intention of designing a new order of memories, of proposing the new criteria for telling a story, for differentiating between past and future. Modern art was working on the level of an contemporarj form.