Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), Reproduction, Repetition, and the Destruction of the Aura

Andy Warhol, one of the most significant and influential figures of 20th century art, is best know as a pop artist and leader of several avant-garde movements of the 1960s. Although mostly associated with painting, Warhol was also a prolific photographer and filmmaker. One of his most recognizable films, Empire (1964), consists of an eight-hour, black and white, silent and uninterrupted sequence of the Empire State Building. According to The Museum of Modern Art, this single stationary shot of the Empire State Building was filmed from 8:06 p.m. to 2:42 a.m. on July 25-26, 1964, and the projection speed was of “sixteen frames per second, slower than its shooting speed of twenty-four frames per second.”[1] This feature makes the progression from light to darkness almost indiscernible. Since its conception, Empire has remained as one of the key works in film and art history. To analyze the significance of this film, a reading based on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility” will be conducted; this analysis will not only place it as an anti-film, but also as a work that is about the destruction of the aura.

Mechanical reproduction due to technological advancements is the fundamental concern in Benjamin’s essay. The author claims that a work’s aura is lacking when a technological reproduction takes place. For Benjamin, the aura is related to the spatial and temporal characteristics, or to the “here and now,” of a work of art, and it is undermined when a reproduction takes place.[2] This is mainly due to the fact that technological reproductions “can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain,” and allow the original to “meet the recipient halfway.” [3] In other words, it displaces the artwork, and by doing so, the here and now is devalued. This decay of the aura, Benjamin argues, is ultimately caused by the masses’ necessity to be closer to things and destabilizes the concept of authenticity.[4] When analyzing Empire within Benjamin’s argument and parameters, one can conclude that Warhol’s film seems aware of the tension between the aura and the object, and that it essentially pushes it to the limit.

Warhol chose to shoot New York’s most iconic building in an interrupted manner for approximately seven hours; this feat further emphasizes the loss of the aura. The projection speed of sixteen frames per second, slower than the shooting speed, makes the displacement all the more apparent because it is extended and manipulated in a way that the spectator is no longer able to grasp a concept of temporality. Because of these unique features—running time, shooting time, and projection speed—, Warhol’s film seems to be about the gradual decay of the aura. Nevertheless, one could most definitely assume that Benjamin would perceive these characteristics as somewhat positive. When speaking about cinema’s ability to manipulate time and space, Benjamin notes that, “With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. And just as enlargement not merely clarifies what we see indistinctly ‘in any case,’ but brings to light entirely new structures of matter…” which in turn, reveal the “optical unconscious.”[5] In other words, these manipulations reveal hidden qualities of both vision and movement that are unperceivable to the human eye.

In addition to shooting/projection speed and shooting length, Empire completely destroys the aura because of its Dadaist quality. Benjamin states that the Dadaists “attached much less importance to the commercial usefulness of their artworks than to the uselessness of those works as objects of contemplative immersion” and that doing so created a “ruthless annihilation of the aura.”[6] Empire is such an example because its point is not commercial viability nor is it the spectator’s enjoyment. If one thing is certain about Dadaist works, is that they sought to shock and/or outrage the public.[7] Warhol’s film is most certainly aligned with this philosophy, as it continues to be discussed as an example of anarchic/anti cinema.

Although Empire can be thought of as an anti-film, it is nonetheless a work that triggers introspection. Benjamin discusses two forms of audience participation when engaging with a work of art: distraction and concentration, and explains how these two modes of participation form an antithesis. On one hand, a person who is concentrated in a work of art is “absorbed by it,” while the distracted person or masses “absorb the work of art into themselves.”[8] To explain these concepts, Benjamin presents architecture as the perfect artform in which the prevalent mode of participation is distraction. He says, “the reception of architecture . . . spontaneously takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation.” [9] Empire challenges the dialectic presented by Benjamin; not only is it about architecture, but due to its extensive runtime, it forces the audience to be both absorbed by the work and absorb the work into themselves. To illustrate this idea, American art critic Blake Gopkin describes his experience of watching Empire in 2014 and pointedly states, “If great works of art can be thought of as machines for thinking, triggering ideas by the dozen, then “Empire” is a Rolls-Royce: It keeps us thinking about what film is and does, what great buildings are all about and even how and why we look at things.”[10] Warhol achieves this not only by presenting an extremely long take of the building, but also due to repetition.

Warhol’s use of repetition is in fact something that has been discussed as one his most important and effective techniques. Branden Joseph in “The Play of Repetition” discusses Empire and asserts,

From the onset of total darkness, the depicted image becomes nearly inert, the passing of recorded time evident primarily in the blinking light atop the adjacent Metropolitan Life Building, its flashing retarded (like all of Warhol’s silent films) as the twenty-four frames-per-second (fps) of shooting is slowed to sixteen fps upon projection. From this moment on, however, the viewer’s attention divides between the nearly motionless depicted image and the fleeting passage of film grain that push processing and the flashes and flares that occurred in developing have rendered extremely visible.[11]

Indeed, the materiality of film is also one of the focal concerns in Empire, as it forces the spectator to observe the physical characteristics of celluloid like grain and some “imperfections” caused by the chemical process. The effect, Joseph explains, is of a “temporal and material splitting” which is achieved through an “implicit juxtaposition of a stable or recurrent visual constant…”[12] In other words, through repetition—or a recurrent visual constant—Warhol induces both concentration and distraction, and is the reason why the audience watching can be both absorbed by and into the film.

Overall, Andy Warhol’s Empire destroys what Benjamin calls the aura of an object not simply because film as a medium is based on reproduction, but also due to characteristics such as shooting time, projection speed, and “uninterruption” of the take. A reading of Empire based on Benjamin’s theory also suggests that the film is not only aware of the tension between the “here and now” of an artwork or object, but that it actually pushes it to the limit. Another feature of Empire that completely annihilates the aura is its Dadaist quality, which is why it has been discussed in art circles as an example of an anti-film (much like how Dada works were considered anti-art). Although Empire aligns with many of Benjamin’s concepts, it nonetheless challenges the binary of audience participation. Not only due to its subject matter, architecture, but also as a result of the long runtime, projection and shooting speed, and above all: reproduction. The latter characteristic of Warhol’s Empire highlights the physical characteristics of the celluloid and gives rise to a temporal and material split. This causes both distraction and concentration from the part of the audience. Jonas Mekas, film pioneer and Village Voice critic, once said of the artist: “Andy Warhol is the most revolutionary of all filmmakers working today.” Indeed, Warhol’s legacy and significance is still very much relevant in the 21st century, which is why he continues to be a subject of scholarship and analysis.

References

[1] “Andy Warhol. Empire. 1964 | MoMA.” Accessed April 30, 2018. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/89507.

[2] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility.” Accessed March 25, 2018, 103.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 105.

[5] Ibid, 117.

[6] Ibid, 119.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 120.

[10] Gopnik, Blake. “Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire,’ Shown In Its Entirety.” The New York Times, January 16, 2014, sec. Art & Design. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/arts/design/andy-warhols-empire-shown-in-its-entirety.html.

[11] Joseph, Branden W. “The Play of Repetition: Andy Warhol’s Sleep.” Grey Room 19 (April 2005): 22–53. https://doi.org/10.1162/grey.2005.1.19.22, 28.

[12] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s