Dissertation Research: The Science and Technology of Cultural Reproduction

My work reassembles the experimental systems of scientists who digitally reproduce art, artifacts, and sites of cultural heritage. I argue that this form of reconstruction is a distinctly political act of aesthetic appearing that paradoxically affirms and subverts modern notions of authenticity and originality in the pursuit of new forms of cultural capital.

Case Study: The Fugitive and Its Double

In 1962, the famous American painter Mark Rothko created six mural-size paintings 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 sensory and emotional effects, Rothko worked in his signature style with a handmade paint medium. Unknown to him at the time, the paint was so sensitive to light exposure that its colors began to fade in the brightly sunlit 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.

Three decades later, the murals were re-exhibited with the help of a scientific system that superimposed light-projected color-compensating double images onto their surfaces. More surprising was the decision that Harvard made to turn the supplemental system off every day before a public audience.

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.

My work builds on the argument that Rothko’s interest in existential askesis created a way to transform the public viewing of abstract art into a private emotional experience. Over time, Rothko’s spiritual and aesthetic discipline became a discursive body of knowledge about how to have an authentic experience with his paintings (as seen in the clip from Mad Men below).

As Rothko’s work aged, the discourse became an ethical guide for the scientific preservation of his paintings in which conservators negotiated the border between compromised original and idealized copy. Objectivity became an epistemic virtue that replaced Rothko’s moral virtue of askesis. The Harvard Art Museums focused their historical mission as a “laboratory for art” on reproducing the paradoxical dilemma that preoccupied Rothko’s own ascetic experimental practice—how to mediate authentic acts of self-sacrifice that cannot be mediated. The objectivity of science and the semblance of theatre merged.

For Harvard’s conservators, the reproduction of the Murals’ material and virtual 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 experience for modern individuals in a public space of existential contemplation.

Seeing a Rothko for the first time in 1962 (clip from an episode of Mad Men).

Seeing the Rothkos restored with light (video from the Harvard Art Museums).