Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Accept Your Fake

December 10th, 2012 · 3 Comments


One of the issues I’m grappling with on my in-development Wired story is how we’ll need to redefine the notion of authenticity in the era of ubiquitous 3D printing. If I can make a perfect copy of any object without leaving the comfort of my home, does the original lose its aura of value?

That’s a question that folks in New Ireland are now confronting, as they ponder whether to accept 3D copies of ceremonial masks that German colonialists swiped in the 19th century. Before I read the piece, I could only consider the German offer a slap in the face—why shouldn’t they be the ones left with the copies, since they only obtained the originals through theft? But two current New Ireland residents do excellent jobs of playing the devil’s advocates in the piece:

“I realise that these artefacts are stored in special places and special care,” says Adam Kaminiel, a modern Nalik carver. “I don’t think we have that special place and special care at the moment.”

Chief of the New Ireland clan, Martin Kombeng adds that matters could get complicated if the masks were repatriated.

“Maybe I think differently, but I prefer to leave the masks as they are because once they are back, many people will try to claim them.”

It is Kaminiel’s argument that I find most interesting, because he is essentially saying that he would prefer that the originals be preserved for the long-run rather than have them return and deteriorate. Even if the copy and the original are indistinguishable from one another, he feels that the mask created by his ancestors has intrinsic value separate from its appearance. I have to wonder if this is a viewpoint that will vanish over the next few generations, as 3D printing entirely blurs the line between fake and real. The psychological heft of objects may no longer be in who created them, but in purely in how they are used.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    Walter Benjamin was all over this in his Marxist way. From what I remember, he stated that there would be a fetish attached to the original as perfect copies would make art a commodity.

    In this case, a perfect copy would be nearly valueless, according to him. I have a hard time disagreeing. More fascinating is what would happen if 3d printers become much better and ubiquitous, and you can visit the world’s treasuries in a day by having masterpieces recreated in front of you, or visit a museum of pre-made copies.

  • Jordan

    @scottstev

    To a degree that’s already the case. There were lots of plaster casts of Greek and Roman statues made during the 19th century that are on display in Western museums. It’s not perfect, since many still have mold lines, but not a bad way to go.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    I distinctly remember that the Rosetta Stone on display in the British Museum is an obvious replica. I guess the rationale there is that the original is too fragile and precious to see the light of day. I imagine it is in a crate somewhere in a vast warehouse, right next to the Ark of the Covenant.

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