The science and technology of cultural reproduction
My dissertation is titled Reconstruction Acts: Experimental Science and the Epistemic Theatre of Historic Preservation. Through three case studies, I trace the experimental systems of scientists and artisans who digitally reproduce artifacts and sites of cultural heritage.
My research includes the restoration of Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals with projected light, Factum Arte’s material facsimile of the tomb of New Kingdom Pharaoh Seti I, the ‘big data’ Venice Time Machine, and the biological reproduction of extinct flora and fauna.
I argue that the technological reconstruction of art and artifacts anticipates a future in which the western understanding of ‘original’ and ‘copy’ is overturned, while dramatizing the material past through a reinforcement of the western ‘classical’ trope of ruin and rebirth.
The digital reproduction not only overturns popular conceptions of originality, it situates the historical object into new systems of technical mediation and thought. These systems simultaneously depend on the manifestation of difference in experimental cycles of research, and in the accumulation of those differences as a new kind of universal knowledge that reinforces the museum’s hold on cultural capital, while clearing a way for new conceptions of history and memory.
The Fugitive and its Double
In 1962, Mark Rothko created five canvases for a penthouse dining room at Harvard University. His goal was to create “a place” where visitors would be immersed in abstract imagery that he hoped would stimulate spontaneous feelings of a spiritual nature.
To produce these spiritual effects in the Harvard Murals, Rothko worked in his signature style with a handmade paint medium. Unknown to him at the time, the paint was so sensitive to light that its colors began to fade in the sunlight-flooded penthouse. His fugitive pigment was on the run. By the late 1970s, Harvard was forced to remove the damaged paintings and put them into dark storage.
After more than twenty years, the murals were recently re-exhibited with the help of a scientific system that projects a color-compensating double image over their surfaces. More surprising is the choice that Harvard made to let public audiences watch museum security guards turn the supplemental lighting system off at the end of each day.
In the double-concept blend of seeing the Rothkos as both “on” and “off,” then and now, absent and present, a new phenomenological theatre occurred where multiple epistemic ideas about the authenticity of a “Rothko experience” were accumulated, and where multiple temporalities and spaces were compressed.
Ultimately, I argue that Rothko’s existential interest in a spiritual exercise of self-loss created a public way of talking about abstract art as a private experience. That discourse became a historical body of knowledge about how a spectator is to experience Rothko’s paintings.
As Rothko’s work aged, the discourse became an ethical guide for the scientific preservation of his paintings. Objectivity became an epistemic virtue that replaced Rothko’s moral virtue of askesis. Harvard focused its well-established “laboratory for art” on reproducing the paradoxical dilemma that preoccupied Rothko’s own ascetic experimental practice—how to mediate spiritual acts of self-sacrifice that cannot be mediated.
For Harvard’s conservators, the reproduction of the Murals’ mediated and unmediated effects became an example of the virtue of scientific objectivity taken to its theatrical limit. The fugitive and its double blazed a path for historical reproduction as a new form of ascetic devotion that both compromised and revived Rothko’s original vision—to dramatically stage a new kind of tragic private experience for modern viewers in a public space of existential contemplation.