Tricky's catchy 1995 track Brand New You're Retro was only one in a long line of creative works that belong to a habit, even a tradition, that privileges "originality" above all other virtues. Early 20th century High Modernism was obsessed with the "Original" as it was at the crossroads presented by new technologies of mechanical reproduction. German photomontage pioneer and super-communicator John Heartfield got on with chopping, cutting and pasting images and not caring a fig about what the original meant to the originators. But as Benjamin noted, the "aura" around the original remained; in fact, mass reproductions only served to inflate the aura of the original. Somehow our idea of the original like the "soul" persists despite centuries of scientific evidence to the contrary.
Postmodernism and early forays into digitisation and hyper-reproduction, via games of sampling and remixing, inflicted further blows to the body of this ancient notion. But the Original, however scarred and scratched, was nevertheless left standing, like a venerable cedar in the forest of our fantasies and self-image. Note the subtle insult issued by Mr Hockney at the direction of Mr Hirst recently.
The Original needs Originators and it needs its idealised take on the individual creator-artist and his genius. Individualism, we must remember, is a founding myth of the modern man, perhaps dating from the Renaissance. It is much harder to identify the individual Persian architects, Chinese calligraphers and Arab ceramicists of the pre-modern period not because individual authors didn't exist, but because the group rather than the self was valued - the work, rather than the author. It is a quite recent, distinctly Western obsession that lines up individualism, authorship and originality in a straight diagonal line, like ducks above the fireplace.
Voltaire's well known quote about God - "if he didn't exist we would have had to invent him" - can be applied to the idea of the Original. It is there despite all attempts by technology to prove its non-relevance. Longing for the Original is a contemporary ache, a form of modern nostalgia. As Svetlana Boym points out on page 108, the term "nostalgia" was coined as a definition for the form of psychological malady experienced by Swiss mercenaries fighting in Italy, who missed the mountains and cowbells, one presumes (but maybe not the food).
Instagram is Tank and social media's latest obsession. It is an effortless way of customising our ubiquitous digital photographs.
It allows its users the permission to express a certain kind of originality to their circle of friends albeit, a very thin illusion of one. Instagram, like much else vaguely hipsterish, relies on nostalgia for its magic to work. Images taken on your mobile phone's digital camera are rendered more authentic and real using a series of filters that make them look old and analogue, literally offering you a rose-tinted, filtered view on reality. Altered to look woozy gorgeous in the style of '70s and '80s Polaroids or '90s cross-processed Nick Knight photographs for i-D magazine. The harshness of the present is softened, as if through the bottom of a glass or a haze of smoke. Blue skies viewed from the bottom of a k-hole. Pictures (taken last year) of your girlfriend sitting in a park can be made to look like pictures of your mother sitting in a park (taken 25 years ago). You tell me that that is healthy? On the other hand your liver is safe and there are none of the other dangers associated with having a long-term co-dependent relationship with a dangerous drug dealer.
There is a complex bunch of ideas tied up in a knot inside Instagram. Instagram spreads a form of standardised homogeneous uniqueness. It reaffirms the illusion that we are all different and that it matters that we are, even as we all do exactly the same thing with it. Instagram is a social network of shared sensibility, much as carrying a copy of The Face was in 1987; it's a badge of belonging. Instagram is freeware also. That means you only pay for it without realising that you do, and as such, is a useful indicator of this generation's mentality, confusing "free" with freedom. The political economy of freeware is radical and liberatory and really capitalist at the same time. It is similar to a lottery, the myth is that anyone can win, the truth is that only one can win and everybody else loses. In part, freeware is positively anarchist (opposing classic capitalist ideas of virtue attached to goods and to work and enterprise) and at the same time the most extreme form of capitalism.
Instagram is easy. To those of us who practiced photography before the digital age, it appears to be a cheat. We photographers once looked for the sorts of results that Instagram delivers, except we had to work at it. We messed around with the chemical processes of photography, using developing chemicals meant for one type of film on another, poured Diet Coke into the chemical mixes, and printed the results on unrecommended paper and film stocks, doing the very opposite of what the instructions demanded in order to find "unique" looks for our photographs. By contrast, Instagram gives you "result" without effort. Another hipster favourite, but it would be as stupid and nostalgic to fetishise effort over result. More constructive would be for us to realise what we lose every time we gain something "for nothing", or near enough.
Is it a total accident that the high street brand of the moment sounds quite a bit like "Unique clones"? Is it a huge problem, waking up in a sweat to find out that you aren't as unique as you thought you were? Maybe that's not as awful as you think. Douglas Coupland isn't worried. The real problem is that, as John Gray notes, we live in atomised societies where social fabric is wearing thin. Meaning that the option to embrace the collective as compensation for the fading of the idea of individual is also disappearing. Meanwhile, enjoy the Nostalgia issue and by the way don't forget to join Instagram (and follow @tankmagazine). §