Student Report: Superdeep #9 “Benjamin’s Aura and NFT”

Benjamin’s Aura and NFT Presented by Tian Leiyuan
Reported by Zishuo Wu

Treat from the event, photographed by Zishuo Wu

This was the last Superdeep meeting in this session. TIAN Leiyuan, presenter of this workshop, brought her audience two delicious pizzas, making the atmosphere in the meeting room marvelous and enjoyable.

To begin, Prof. Nathan Hauthaler introduced the host, TIAN Leiyuan, (image below). Leiyuan is junior majoring in media arts who is also involved in a lot of work in philosophy. In this presentation of “Benjamin’s Aura and NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens),” she shared one of her research projects connecting philosophy in media arts.


Speaker, Leiyuan Tian, presenting.

First, Leiyuan introduced what NFT arts look like by showing the audience two esteemed NFT artworks. The first one was The Five Fears by the Aeforia collection, a 3D image with peculiar sound effects. The second was Every Day: The first 5000 days (1981).

NFT was described by Leiyuan as a type of unique, indivisible, and indestructible digital verification of purchase recorded on blockchains. Why did NFT emerge? Leiyuan said it offered a way to acknowledge the ownership of reproducible pieces, allowing them to be associated with digital art.

Then, she started her main argument of this seminar: “Aura.” The Aura, which her argument centers around, was originated on natural objects as a metaphor for similar aesthetic phenomena. Aura is coined by the German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), as the spatially and temporally situated uniqueness of a work of art and its lively gaze perceived by the audience. This term, which was used to seem dismissed by mechanical reproductions, could be revived in digital art through the application of NFTs.

As Benjamin said, “We define the aura of the latter (“natural objects”) as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” The aura matters in its “cult value” — defined as the attention-worthy nobility in a distance, of the work of art in categories of space and time perception. Leiyuan highlighted that the core of “cult value” is its unapproachability — rather than illustrating objects in their original form, beings with cult value tend to engage the spectators in their recreated form, creating an immersive, thoughtful experience. It was described as the opposite of “exhibition value,” for which Leiyuan raised the example of photos: “photos were taken as records of historical occurrences, for publicity and could be easily reproduced for the public.”

After that, Leiyuan went further to introduce the “gaze” concept in the aura. She described “gaze” as “a distant manifestation of traces of experience an object collected from humans’ unconscious life.” Such term is closely relevant with aura, as Benjamin wrote, “Experience of the aura thus arises from the fact that a response characteristic of human relationships … The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn.” Art posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. Leiyuan related this concept with two other theories: one was Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, “becoming conscious and leaving behind a memory trace are processed incompatibly with each other;” the other was Proust’s mémoire involontaire: “this experience [of aura as exchanging the gaze] corresponds to the data of the mémoire involontaire.” Like involuntary memories, the gaze does not involve intellectual activities, not informative but “imaginative,” and thus we never get tired of its beauty.

In the last part of her session, she introduced aura in NFT in three different dimensions: (1) the endowment of cult values, including authenticity and mysteriousness and nobility; (2) the transformation of exhibition values – the more people are admiring NFT artwork without owning it, the more valuable it becomes; (3) the reconstruction of the lively gaze of works of art: the creation of trustable hallucinations and even an alternative universe of virtuality.

After her unfolding of the three dimensions, this marvelous speech came to an end. Her creativity convincingly connecting a philosophical concept and newly-born art forms has surely left the audience with a strong impression.