air travel, Steven ten Thije

narrator Steven ten Thije
term air travel
published August 2022, Eindhoven
affiliated institution Van Abbemuseum

This term “air travel” itself travelled from the moment of its inception and the moment of writing. When presented originally in the first Glossary of Common Knowledge seminar part of the Our Many Europes L’Internationale programme, there was no war in Ukraine and Corona was still mostly known as a beer brand. In the meantime, it is as though the term itself had taken off and made quite a few loops. This context has perhaps not changed the basic substance of the text but did make my basic assumption sharper. When I first proposed “air travel” as a concept for the Geopolitics referential field I was informed by the realisation that climate change will require many habits to change in the coming years, and that air travel is one of them. The question I had was if there was some form of correlation between the globalised museum sector, and the possibility of cheap or affordable air travel. My conclusion was that there was one, and that the basic dependence of the museum sector on air travel is in some sense even more problematic than in the world of business.


In economic terms, air travel is a cost factor that is part of the greater schema of costs and income. If, however, it turns out that the costs of air travel increase, due to its high impact with regard to climate change, then perhaps we can break the emotional connection to air travel and start to look for alternatives. One can think of the Hollywood movie Up in the Air, which presents the story of a businessman whose life is defined by air travel and who has built his sense of self upon his status of being almost perpetually airborne. His world collapses when an ambitious young colleague proposes to revolutionise the industry by providing their services through video conference calls. He fights the change all he can, but fails and has to accept that in the end efficiency trumps this addiction to air travel. The makers of the movie could never have imagined how prophetic their idea would be when the coronavirus grounded more or less all planes in the world overnight, and instigated a massive migration from the offline to online worlds of work. Today, online business meetings are more or just as common as physical ones. For the museum field, however, the reliance on air travel is different.


Museums first and foremost are their collections. These collections almost always consist of physical objects, and in the case of art museums unique artworks. Especially in the field of art, the main asset of a museum are the original artworks it stores, which offer small, distinct pieces of the vast puzzle that is world art history. Not all pieces are equal in this puzzle, and some are considered more important than others. Much of what curators and museum directors over the world are busy with is securing new, valuable originals for their collections. The purpose of these collections is to present these works to “the public”. This public has in the decades since 1989 became a global one, when the collapse of the Soviet Union, combined with ever cheaper flights, inaugurated an era of connectivity and mobility unprecedented in world history. The booming tourist industry in these globalised decades thus vastly increased who can qualify as a member of this public for museums – anyone, provided they can take a plane and travel around the world to fill their art bucket lists as richly as possible. If air travel would cease to be possible, this public would shrink and the valued, hallowed moment of being close to the original artworks will once again be less available.


The question that then presents itself is what is the precise purpose of this experience of the original, and is it conceivable to realise that experience in a different manner using fewer fossil fuels? To answer this question, one place where we can turn is perhaps almost too obvious: Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction, written between 1936 and 1939. Few texts are as rich and precise in tackling the question of the reliance on the original in the cultural practices of the West. Benjamin’s main observation, which is useful for us here, is that he understands human societies are in permanent flux as a result of changes in technology, politics and economy. The way in which societies understand and practice art is affected by these changes. The custom to consider art to be linked to the experience of an original is in Benjamin’s view linked to the rise of the modern, capitalist society. When describing the role artworks play in capitalist societies he uses the perhaps best-known term of the essay: the famous and mysterious notion of “aura”. He describes it using two different formulations. First, he describes it as the simple “here and now” of the work. The fact that it exists in one place at each and every moment of its life. The second is more cryptic and refers to the experience of aura. He describes this as experiencing “the apparition of a distance however near it may be”. It is a complex formulation, which refers to the fact that the original is original on the basis of its ability to differ from something else. Only in difference can the original be recognised. What one experiences in front of the original work, is the fact that regardless of how close one desires to get to it, and make it familiar, the work will always retreat into its status as the original by radiating one fact constantly: everything I am is part of me and defines me, there is nothing superfluous, as what I am is this material presence and only this. The whole museum practice of restoration and preservation is based on this insight that nothing in the work should be lost, as the essence of the work is simply all it is.


In this text Benjamin is not very explicit in why these two qualities are so linked to capitalist society. Yet it is clear that it has to do with the particular manner in which human interaction is organised under capitalism. In contemporary terms, one could describe it as a culture defined by exclusivity in opposition to communism, which in Benjamin’s view strives towards inclusion. The exclusivity is grounded in the prominence property plays in capitalist society. Without property, the whole system would collapse. This links to the first definition of aura which describes how things exist on the basis of their distinctness in occupying one place every moment. These things can be owned and what is owned is their distinctness. If two things could be exactly the same and they could be owned by two individuals, the latter would have no way to know who owned which thing. This also brings Benjamin to the more mysterious second description of aura, which counters this potential problem through the realisation that in the end, no two things are ever completely similar. Even if only in tiny details, even two editions of the same newspaper show small material differences, which makes them identifiable and open to ownership.


Even if this to some degree explains why property and originality are linked, there is still a part missing. Ownership is not a goal in itself. What is owned represents something of value to the owning subject, and perhaps even has moral or ethical implications. What value does ownership represent for a capitalist subject? The answer in a sense is twofold and combines the fields of economics and politics. What established itself in the course of the 20th century, perhaps especially in Western nations, but also elsewhere, were meritocratic societies whereby individuals were defined by their talent. In the Netherlands, this transformation is described with great precision and insight by Kees Vuyk in his recent study Oude en Nieuwe Ongelijkheid [Old and New Inequality]. By improving access to education, people from all walks of life were able to develop their talents and become successful. Knowledge in this culture became a key asset, as it allowed the individual to differentiate themselves and also have an advantage over others. Success in business meant being able to provide something others could not, being different, having more skills, in short, knowing more. Knowledge is in the end defined by what the subject has been offered. So the more experience one is able to accumulate, the more valuable the subject becomes. At the same time, liberal, democratic political systems rely on the public being able to take an informed position on political issues. Here, too, knowledge is key, as if the public is unknowing it becomes susceptible to populist manipulation. Only if the voters can understand why one solution for social problems is better than another, can they make a good decision. Moreover, the political culture values knowledge accumulation tremendously.


The unique experience of the original artwork becomes a symbol in this political and economic culture. Standing in front of a valued and important original, the subject is filled with the unique knowledge of the work, which can only be achieved through direct, close physical proximity. After seeing an important original, the subject has been improved and can now relate to those who have shared that experience, and can equally discriminate themselves from those who have not. Visiting many museums is a thus way to boost one’s value as a subject. Of course, there are many other thoughts and emotions that are had in front of an original work of art, which are valuable for the subject’s experience. What remains to be answered is if these emotions rely on the original itself and could not also be produced through the experience of a copy. Moreover, regardless of the quality of the copy, a substantial part of the experience of a work is the journey towards it. It is the realisation that one has made an effort, one that not everyone is willing or able to make, and that this makes the subject more exclusive, more unique. Taking a budget airline flight to Paris to see the original Mona Lisa can thus contribute significantly to the experience.


Figure 2: The Museum of American Art, Berlin, The Making of Modern Art, 29 April 2017 – 13 June 2021, exhibition view, Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Peter Cox.


This analysis of the reliance on air travel for the museum sector puts museums in a difficult position. Could they ever restructure themselves in a manner in which they could disassociate themselves from this exclusive culture in which the original is the holy grail in the formation of a rich subject? If one takes Benjamin’s analysis as a basis, then the answer can never lie in the field of culture alone. If somehow changes would occur in the fields of politics and economics, in combination with new technology, perhaps the structure of the subject would change as well. One project the Van Abbemuseum undertook, The Making of Modern Art (2016–2018), tried to speculate on these changes. Made in close collaboration with The Museum of American Art, Berlin, the museum presented its collection not as a story of art, but as a story of the culture or system of art and the rise of notions of originality and uniqueness. The exhibition presented these reflections on the system of art, using a combination of originals and copies, turning the whole exhibition into a playful inversion of the art system. In the end the exhibition itself hovered between the old and the new. Even if the format and content were very different, it still was an exhibition that had as its main purpose that it would be visited by as many people as possible. There was, however, also an implicit suggestion in this exhibition project that tried to reach beyond this. As the exhibition was made with copies, it could also easily be copied. The role of the museum was not to provide the original but to help order a web of references among originals, here available as copies. In this context it was not the things themselves that were important, but their relationships. These relationships can be presented in exhibitions, but could also be presented online or in different formats. In this way a museum based on relationships could function in a very different way to one based on originals.


The question that then remains is whether the idea of relationships also links to a new economic or political culture. It is perhaps too early to tell, but if the relationships that exist in the field of culture take a more central position, they address the growing awareness that the only way forward in the light of climate change is mass, collective collaboration. If the world population faces a singular threat then it is logical that the only effective response is one that is taken together. Of course, how to realise such a shift in political and economic culture is immensely difficult. However, one small contribution that museums could make is to rethink their practices with regard to what it would mean if original material objects were not the basis of their collections, but unique relationships instead. These relationships would still build on the realisation that the original exists, but would also enable museums to develop a richer practice in which presenting the relationships among these objects could become another part of what such institutions provide. In this way, the relation can slowly gain prominence over the thing, allowing us to know more and fly less.