My ongoing, time-dilated reading continues. Which feels, oddly enough, almost appropriate for encountering Morgan Swim’s “Copies Without Originals” over at the newly-premiered Translunar Travelers Lounge. After all, this is a story which is on one level concerned with the ways in which art itself stretches across space and time.
As usual for a wonk post, big hairy spoilers follow. Go click the link and read the story first if you want to avoid them. Then toddle on back when you’re ready. This will still be here.
Set four hundred years after the extinction of humanity, “Copies Without Originals” is the story of a robot museum docent still maintaining the art of their museum despite centuries of solitude. Solitude which is suddenly ended by the impossible appearance of a live human being in the museum.
It turns out our new human is themself a clone. Unsurprisingly, a story about a robot and a clone does a lot of good work of examining personhood. What’s got me turning this bit of shiny over and over, though, is the way that’s part of a multi-layered conversation about the intersection of personhood and art. Robot struggles to convey the proper context to clone to evoke the “aura” which good art creates for a viewer.
It’s important to note that both robot and clone are effectively nameless for the bulk of this quiet, intimate story. Both of them have designations which might serve as names, but neither of them feel a connection to those pieces of data given to them by others, so they individually choose not to share them.
The climax of the story hinges on our two characters both claiming names, though not-accidentally, each of them claims a name which is given to them by the opposite party. After seeing the robot’s multi-media piece, clone declares robot to be Art, a name which Art only accepts in the event that they can themself offer that clone is Aura.
It’s a declaration that’s deeply personal, a statement of vulnerable trust and respect and love and no that’s not dust in my eyes. Creating so much emotional resonance with two characters is wonderful all on its own. I’m not here to diminish it. I do want to also applaud the ways in which Swim tangles this intimacy with a broader cultural concern about what art is, where it comes from, and who makes it.
The answer to the last is “people make art,” but that answer, exemplified in Art and Aura naming each other, itself has multiple meanings. At its starkest level, people “make” art in that they are the fabricators of art pieces. They paint, sculpt, photograph, collage, charcoal.
But also, and definitely central to the thesis of the story, people “make” art insofar as art is the interaction of that fabricated work with another person. It’s a conversation, a symbiosis, a commune, a unique ecosystem all its own. Art is an expression of the individual, but it’s fundamentally not expressed at all without another individual who can give it meaningful context.
That multi-leveled paradigm of making art peaks when Art (the robot) declares to the clone who has just named them, “[I]f I’m art, then you must be my aura,” a statement which names Aura (the clone) in turn. The moment carries with it an implicit dependency: Art isn’t art unless Aura is there to be aura.
While this might be the moment of distillation, the story doesn’t just drop this scene out of nowhere, of course. It’s peppered with other moments which build to and bolster this one near the end. When our then-unnamed robot struggles to provide our then-unnamed clone with facts which can contextualize the pieces in the museum. When our clone asks if the people in a painting were “real” and our robot narrator iterates through the many paradigms they might intend for “real.” In the sculpture that comments on clone personhood and asks its audience to prove they can tell the difference between different kinds of glass which both look the same.
In, of course, the fullness of the text itself and the ways in which Swim uses it to create the Aura which creates Art from our interactions with it.
In the end, Art and Aura are people, a statement which, like “people make art” is both an intimate moment of connection between two people and also the microcosm of what art is in a way that’s more than a little trippy.