This past weekend, I was fortunate to be a part of a workshop at Temple University in Philadelphia as a part of a project we’re working on at Each+Every. As a part of our orientation and to get to know one another better, we began by bringing an important object and explaining it to our partner—they would then listen and share with the group what our object meant to us.
I brought a 45rpm record, Open Book / With the Ink of Ghost, released in 2016 by José Gonzalez. For me, this record holds memories of listening to records with my son Arlo and our family in our living room on Saturday mornings; it holds memories of listening to and making music with my own Dad as a kid; it holds my original love of album art as a way of entering into graphic design when I was in high school. While these things are not my whole story, they’re meaningful parts of it, and this act was repeated as our group shared their objects around the room: a necklace, a drawing from a daughter, a stone from Lake Superior, a camera from a grandfather.
Throughout my life, I have been drawn to the power of an object to hold people’s stories: Jeffery Miller’s handwritten playlist on a 45rpm; found shells from a beach trip; photographs of my grandmother; a recording of my dad playing guitar on a Concord Automatic 994. When I was in college I ran a blog called “Beautiful Things from Home” where I photographed family objects I would dig up in our basement. I could spend a lot of time talking about what lies behind each of these. There’s a sense in which an object can hold truths about who we are and where we came from. Maybe this is obvious though, and the reason why objects fight for space in natural history museums, historical societies, and peoples’ attics.
In Statement and Counter-Statement, design studio Experimental Jetset discusses the ways in which some objects, like a poster, act as both an object as an image. If an image of a perfume bottle is printed on a poster, it’s often taken for granted by the viewer that they’re not looking at the actual perfume bottle, but a reproduction. In this way, designed objects can act as illusory objects. At the same time, the designer then has power to bring awareness to the viewer of the object itself, to cut off the illusion that the image on the poster is the real thing (for example, by folding the poster and then hanging it up). In short, I think they’re really asking how much distance exists between an object and a viewer in a designed object.
Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher, argues in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that reproductions of an object devalue its original “aura,” or uniqueness as an object. In other words, to look at a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in an art book is not to really see the Mona Lisa, as one would in the Louvre Museum. Experimental Jetset explores this concept themselves in Statement and Counter-Statement as they photocopy their work at actual scale and reprint it in the book at 100% of its actual size. Folded and die-cut posters bleed off the edges of the paper, buttons sit alongside wristbands and t-shirts on the scanning bed, graphic identities intermingle with cd’s and large-scale posters.
There are a few books I’ve been enjoying lately that play with this idea of aura and object: Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, and Touchable sound : A Collection of 7-inch Records from the USA. Both books explore this idea of reproduction and original, sometimes painstakingly created artworks or poems. It’s sometimes overwhelming to know that for the many artists whose work is in Touchable Sound or for Dickinson herself, that each piece holds a story.
Maybe in another life I would be an archivist, but to look at, see, touch, and hold original artworks (or any crafted object) has become evermore important and special. Our culture has become increasingly digital, and the old adage that “print is dead” could not be more false than ever. Whether or not you agree with Benjamin’s feelings about an object’s aura, I have this feeling that even objects which are one of many still hold value for each individual who engages with it—whether it’s one of a kind or not. In the world of graphic design, we often deal with editions: sets of hundreds or thousands of reproductions. This is the reality that Benjamin foresaw. Yet I think he missed this attachment to objects that people hold on to. The José Gonzalez record I shared about is one of 1,000 that was released, but it’s still a special piece which represents the time spent listening to it with my family. If that was the only copy in existence, I would definitely feel closer to the artist and their work. But my own experience of the record itself and what it holds as an object is not dependent on how many reproductions of the object exist. Within the age of mechanical reproduction, I think I’d like to call this an “aura of memory.”