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  • Sam Jacob in his studio's installation, One Thing After Another, commissioned by Sto Werkstatt. Photo: David Parry

The culture of copying

Architect and critic Sam Jacob ponders the meaning of authenticity

Hidden away in a shed at the end of a garden, perhaps in a basement or attic – somewhere just to the edge of everyday life, a little out of view, shady and a little rickety – we find the figure of the forger. With special equipment and some kind of grudge, the forger’s hand creates (or rather re-creates) a stream of things that look like paintings, documents and money. Not real paintings, documents or money, but imitations so accurate that they appear to be real.

Forgers lurk invisibly in the background, cloaking their authorship in the guise of another as they produce their fakes and copies. The forger is a shadow figure of modernity, one whose work attempts to pass among the authentic and the provenanced, the catalogued and the itemised, the legitimate and the quantified. The forger’s job is to replicate these registers of authenticity. But it’s in the absolute fidelity to the original that authenticity itself unravels. The genuine and the copy are locked in a polarised bind around what constitutes proper authenticity and authorship. 

The threat that the copy presents to these ideas is clear and present. The copy is something that has to be (literally) policed. If not legal fraud, other forms of copy may infringe intellectual property laws – laws that exist to protect and stimulate invention (note that the rise of the patent is inextricably linked to the Industrial Revolution). Other forms of copy may disturb us morally and existentially. Think of the myth of the doppelgänger where an encounter with one’s double is said to presage death. In these ways the copy can be illegitimate, illegal, dangerous, even fatal. 

Yet there are other traditions where the copy has a more productive relationship to culture. In forms of craft, for example, repetition is often privileged over originality. Through repetition the act of making becomes mastered and craft elevates itself. Or as in traditions of Beaux Arts education, where a student’s ability to faithfully reproduce was prized. Replication here acts as a form of knowledge transmission. Those same students might well have been learning from objects that are copies themselves. Think of the Cast Courts at the V&A, a collection of replica fragments of canonical objects of western culture. 


The cast’s purpose was to transmit knowledge, the act of copying used as a way to multiply and magnify the original’s significance and influence. Replication here acts as a foundation to culture, recalling the aphorism Barbara Kruger cut and pasted onto an image of a breastfeeding baby: ‘We are obliged to steal language.’
If we view the history of architecture as a history of copying (where Romans copied Greeks, the Renaissance copied both and so on) – a history of remaking the past in order to invent the future – then we find ourselves in exciting times. Digital tools are now completely embedded in the processes of architecture and design, fundamental to the process of making. And the processes of copying that are native to digital culture – duplicates, arrays, symbols, references and the copy-and-paste keystroke – are now second nature to us.

The question, though, is if we have yet understood how these new forms of copying might be more than professionally expedient. What does it mean that multiple copies of a digital file are exactly the same? What does it mean to be able to transfer original physical form into a digital state through 3D scanning? How might the proliferation of digital copies begin to transform the physical world? What are the interfaces between the virtual and the real? How do digital tools allow information to slip from one realm to the other? These are difficult technical questions as we invent tools to navigate between the digital and the physical, but more profoundly they ask: where, if anywhere, is the original? What does ‘authentic’ now mean? 

In an age where we swipe our phones as we eat heritage tomatoes, we find ourselves between worlds, where ideas of the authentic, artisanal and hand-made co-exist with the multiple and the virtual. In other words, we find ourselves in multiple conversations with the idea of the ‘real’, as if time has collapsed, telescoping back through reconstructions of the past (‘ancient grain’ anyone?) and into the future at one and the same time. That’s to say, in a digital age the copy and the original now inhabit the same space. The copy is fundamental to the production of the original, the original indistinguishable from the copy.

As our relationship to digital culture matures, might we find new relationships with the copy emerging? Might we soon welcome our doppelgängers and engage them in a deep and profound discussion of how identity is now constructed? Might we usher the forgers from their shadowy lairs, directing their undoubted talents to the production of objects that help us question ideas of authenticity? Could the forgers’ duplicity become a way of doubling our efforts to understand the problems and possibilities of ‘the real’ in an age of digital documentation and fabrication?