Definitions by Penny McCarthy


I am thinking of the manicules that are used to draw attention to specific sections of text in medieval manuscripts. These annotations of pointing hands and fists are often elaborately drawn with delicate fingers and sometimes the suggestion of cuffs, some are cartoons that playfully point towards humour, others are no more than a quickly-drawn squiggle to punctuate the text. The manicules underline the mimetic potential of drawing and writing, acting as a graphic indicator of the maker. This gesture also seems like a surrogate of the hands operating beyond time. William Sherman describes these manuscripts as ‘texts littered by severed hands in gestures that cannot but fail to catch the eye…They have an uncanny power to conjure up the bodies of dead writers and readers.’

Perhaps it is this sense of embodiment that means I can never disentangle the practices of drawing and handwriting. For me, they both function as mimetic and resonant forms of transcription. In my own work, the close copy made by hand collapses the space between the thing described and the ‘real’ thing. We do not simply see the original or source, we see a doubling of the work as image, we see it as it was made by its author and then again through my hand.

By studying texts as mimetic drawings/images, I feel that I have learned or intuited something of the feeling from which a work originates and also something that carries it forward. I am interested in the metaphysics of the encounter- the physicality of the thing before us, held in our hands rather than presented in the archive. There is also an ineffable something else: a meeting across time, a kind of communion that takes place when something that is from the hand of the writer is at direct hand, as it is passed through my hands.

As I write this, I have just completed a drawing based on a fragment of Walter Benjamin’s that describes his theory of aura. Benjamin’s minuscule handwriting, his careful choice of paper and writing material, seems a private writing. I can’t read German. So, what is it I see? I see something of his hands and I see something of the act that produced this.

by Penny McCarthy, Wednesday, 19 June, 2019


Copy as verb…We caught you copying… The speech was copied word for word… Copy the file to your hard drive...

I have always loved copying things – there is something corrupt, illicit and sexy about the activity. I am not sure that I can define the differences between fakes, counterfeits, replicas and copies but I am taken with the idea of the ‘proxy’ which Brian Blanchfield describes as expressing a concession to failure or error. I like this idea of a proxy, a work that is a stand-in for something that approximates the feeling you might get from the desired artefact – if only you could get your hands on it. For me, copying is analytic but not really academic, it’s a way to focus on a subject materially, to unpack it until it gives way to something new. Copying is a site of meditation, ritualistic. And as I make copies by hand, there is also plenty of failure, shame and vulnerability in each work that does not capture the source.
In his Uncreative Writing project, Kenneth Goldsmith considers the practice of copying, as a political act that can vivify and animate a text. There is a now established tendency to explore the copy by passing it through media that exposes its granularity. Rather than producing a simulacrum, these practices make media performative, indexical. From this emerges a kind of resistant ideology, and a circulation of the ‘poor image’ described by Hito Steyerl. Maybe this is a restatement of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’, distinguishing the machine’s transmission - blind to poetic nuance- from the act of copying as channelled through human consciousness.
It is the specific connection between copying and the limits of reproducibility that I find most interesting. I remember the era of Xerox art when running an image or a text repeatedly through the copier or the fax machine would produce something imagistic out of language until another kind of reading would emerge. The photocopier, the Xerox machine or the fax – these machines occupied a transitional moment between the analogue and digital. Yet the pleasure of the photocopy multiplied and pushed to the point of entropic collapse actually extends copying into an even closer attentiveness to matter. We see this in the images that W.G.Sebald uses in his books, in which the copied and re-copied images imply the hands of the author holding the image to the machine again and again until it falls apart, opting to signify something lost and opaque. These melancholy images convey an erosion of reality that is estranged from both the viewer and the narrator, and also, perhaps, embody the failure of technological transmission.
In the face of new reproductive techniques, something of this material granularity gets lost. It seems easier to refer to the copy than the practice of copying. The digital copy resists the trace of performance, without the ghost of presence, there is a more literal correspondence of meanings between ‘original’ and ‘copy’. Maybe it is the riddle of presence that delivers meaning in the copy – something that was once something else is now transformed through a matrix of meanings including time, source, author, process.
The copy is elusive – hard to apprehend.

by Penny McCarthy, Friday, 28 June, 2019

Penny McCarthy (pennymccarthy)
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