An artist once paid a critic back for lunch by handing him a viewing copy of a video work, adding that this should be more than enough—after all, the piece was worth 25,000 Euro. Both were in on the joke, of course; both knew that a DVD viewing copy of an art video is worth even less than an empty new DVD. In a way, viewing copies do not really exist—their spectral status is owed to the art world’s economy of artificial scarcity and the severe limitations it imposes on the movement of images. Aby Warburg once called Flemish tapestries—early reproductive media that disseminated compositions throughout Europe—automobile Bilderfahrzeuge. (1) Later media have proven to be rather more powerful “visual vehicles” capable of being produced on a Fordist assembly line. But rather than have the work travel to the viewer—an increasing tendency throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—in the case of video or film pieces in contemporary art the viewer has to travel to the work, installed in a gallery or museum.
In contemporary art, even pieces produced in media that allow for infinite mass (re)production are executed only in small editions. In the age of YouTube and file-sharing, this economy of the rarified object becomes ever more exceptional, placing ever-greater stress on the viewing copy as a means of granting access to work beyond the “official” limited editions and outside of the exhibition context. The viewing copy is the obverse of the limited edition: as a copy given or loaned to “art world professionals” for documentation or research purposes, it can never be shown in public. The viewing copy thus widens the reach of the work of art, but confidentially and in semi-secrecy. It is precisely this eccentric status of the viewing copy within the economy of art—which itself has an equally exceptional status within contemporary capitalism—that makes it an exemplary object, a theoretical object par excellence.
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1) Aby Warburg, “Mnemosyne. Einleitung” (1929), in Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, ed. Martin Warnke and Claudia Brink (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000), 5.