“What is aura actually? A strange weave of time and space: the unique appearance or semblance of a distance no matter how close it may be.”
Walter Benjamin, ‘A Little History of Photography’
Something fuzzy, fuzzily understood, a kind of halo around things, or people, or images of same. It may actually be there, or might be there but technologically induced, or may be a theoretical fiction.
Aura is the antithesis of ‘exhibitability’ (‘Ausstellbarkeit’, in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ essay). Could we try starting with exhibitability, or exposability, rather than aura? It operates collectively and intimately, both affectively and critically, opening onto a play-space of political action. By contrast, aura acts at a distance, through contemplative immersion to provide individual enlightenment, fostering ‘a breeding ground for asocial behaviour’.
Perhaps aura is in the eye of the beholder. Aura is commonly understood as existing in an antithetical relationship to mechanical reproduction; as the oft-quoted phrase goes, that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. Yet today the mechanically reproducible medium of photochemical film appears as eminently auratic, pushed into the domain of authenticity by the advent of electronic media. The material object of film has not changed – what has is its position within a broader media ecology and, consequently, the values and meanings we attach to it. Thus, the birth of filmic aura, brought into being by the midwife of our anxious gaze.
Aura is something that decays, is always decaying, but is not ever definitively gone, because it always threatens to return and because it is a strange weave of time and space, it might also be said to be a strange weave of this time, that space, and once we move to another time and another space, there is always the potential that new auras will arise. The past becomes auratic, distant, untouchable. The present, electronic, liquid crystal, close up, is all too touchable, our screens, on which our worlds of culture unfurl, at our fingertips. We will find our distance from it one day though. We will no longer to able to make the right gestures on the icy surface of the touchscreen. Our pinches and flicks will trigger the wrong things.
Aura is museological fetishism. It is controlled through ritual. To what extent is the political play-space opened through virtual proximity – whether you want to say ‘via exhibitability’ and invoke art or not – controlled through algorithms?
Aureola is the word used in religious painting to describe the halo depicted around religious figures heads. A painterly tool designed to create aura in the artwork, elevating the status and emotional impact of the holy figures in these paintings. In the 20th Century the aureola reappeared as the halo lamp, which was designed to perfectly illuminate the faces of models during photoshoots. The fashion shoots used this lighting to create an aura around the commodity. In the 21st century the halo lamp is a cheap lighting tool designed to improve the lighting conditions for selfies. These lamps seek to add aura and highlight individuality to your personal image.
The ubiquitous production of each of these examples only further adds to the power of the image within its intended platform.
aura (according to Benjamin):
- casing (might also be called 'etui' or in some instances 'futeral');
- a breath, or more specifically, breathing when contemplating a mountain range;
-an eye opener;
Aura perhaps remains an ambivalent concept, but if we can move away from reification, and also take up the sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s reading of Benjamin, we might see aura as a ‘counter-sense’ to alienation (whereby alienation refers to skewed relations, a non-relation, rather than things we simply dislike). Sensed in this way, aura might refer to a different way of relating ‘where the thing looks back at you, it is speaking to you, it is somehow getting through’.
Rosa Hartmut 2010 'Acceleration and Alienation: Towards a Critical Theory of Late-modern Temporality' Aarhus NSU Press