AN ABC of AVANT-GARDISM
(INTERVIEW for PERSPEKTIVE MAGAZINE "THE AVANT GARDE UNDER NET CONDITIONS" by SYLVIA EGGER)
A. eric kluitenberg defines for the avant-garde today the purpose of smashing the hegemonial surface/s and de(con)structing its crude output. your work and essays have a strong focus on borders, surfaces and interfaces. if interfaces are structured like texts we could say that interfaces should be rewritten in an avant-garde sense. do you think that a writer/artist today should use Hugo Ball's cubistic spacesuit like a textual technique to disrupt the established code? is re-surfacing an important strategy for you?
Kluitenberg says that "technology and new media have become the principal sites of manifestation for the next transformation of the negative dialectics of avantgarde art." While I agree in part with this, the last part of his assertion is perhaps overly assumptive in regards to the idea that avant-gardism is necessarily defined by a "negative dialectics." Especially if, as Kluitenberg himself concedes, "the avantgarde ... is left with nothing to negate" (Smash the Surface / Break Open the Box / Disrupt the Code). It seems naive to make claims for an avant-garde of today smashing hegemonic systems in any formulaic (or non-formulaic) manner, or on the basis of a kind of "hacker manifesto," without taking into account the philosophical complicity of a "negative dialectics" with the very systems it seeks to destroy or disrupt. Moreover, there is always the danger that assertions of this kind merely recycle the usual clichés of nascent art movements & would-be social criticism. Which is not to say that clichés themselves do not serve to encode linguistic or socio-political relations which need to be addressed. Indeed, there is an important sense in which they do, in fact, describe a type of cultural symptomatology-the manifestation of a sublimated language of "dead metaphors," which circulates innocuously through the field of social discourse like a retro-virus. At least this has been the basis of a certain amount of "post-modernist" theorising over the last decade or so. But if such theorising has been of use (if that has any real meaning), it is not so much in the way its discussions of simulationism & simulacrum have re-configured avant-gardist strategies of subversion by means of a certain "viral propagation," but rather in the way in which it has dispelled a number of myths about the supposedly "crude" output of hegemonic systems. Whether one thinks of such systems in terms of "Ideological State Apparatuses" (Althusser) or stratified "machines" (Deluze & Guattari, et al.), there remains a complexity which cannot be reduced or dialectised in terms of crude or "surface" output ("seamless media surfaces," as Kluitenberg says)-at least not in any straightforward sense. It used to be thought that "discontinuity" (parallax, parataxis, catachresis, etc.) could be systematically used to "de(con)struct" hegemonic systems, & so on. This was replaced by the truism that power itself is discontinuous-although this was already made obvious by Machiavelli & others. In a certain sense, the strategies of late capitalism have become far more radical & "subversive" than anything attempted by the various avant-gardes-something which pop-art was already a mere artefact of (excepting, perhaps, a figure like Warhol). The problem here, however, is that it is often assumed that contemporary artists, as some form of conspicuous "avant-garde," play a role in determining social discourse & in affecting the nature of social institutions. There have always been difficulties with this view. Firstly because it assumes a didactic, even positivistic role for the avant-garde, which tends to stand in contradiction to the means & practices of avant-gardes historically (Situationism, for example). Secondly it assumes a critical competence on the part of avant-gardes in gauging or affecting social conditions, or what some might call social consciousness. Thirdly, & rather significantly, it assumes that avant-gardes both "exist" & that, in existing, do so under a type of corporate identity whose organisation & objectives are more or less clearly delineated, or at least definable. This, of course, has everything to do with the fact that avant-gardism is itself a genre, an art-historical category, an available role that can be adopted by artists in the cause of novelty, protest, or whatever. There is a key element of the performative in claims to avant-gardism, & as with any genre these claims are performed according to a range of stereotypes. The story of the Sex Pistols has become almost paradigmatic in this regard. But while this story occupies our attention with its sordidness & cynicism, it is the machinations surrounding its spectacle of thwarted, inarticulate rage ("de(con)struction"?) which constitutes the real act of subversion. Like Warhol, Malcolm McLaren represented what you might call an éminance grise of the "avant-garde." That is not to conjure up a sinister force lurking behind the surface effects of avant-gardism. Rather, it points to an important shift in the venue & means of the so-called avant-gardist programme. It is a question, ultimately, of how effective the "avant-garde" is at deconstructing itself as a category, as a necessary precondition for a general deconstruction of "hegemonic systems," etc. This in turn brings us to the question of interfaces. I mentioned before the idea of retro-viral propagation. A retro-virus operates on the basis of a certain interface technology, integrating itself into other systems, translating & transposing itself. While this implies a surface effect, it does so in terms of a radical "entelechy." But unlike the Aristotelean "form of forms," the retro-virus escapes genealogical reduction. The genre of the retro-virus is a non-genre, a between-genres, "translation" itself. In deconstructive terms, this would describe a prior possibility of the genetic "code"-that is, a viral programmatics already in place within the genetic structure, underwriting it in fact, since each is implicated & required by the other. What is significant about this analogy, however, is that it draws upon a fundamental textuality. It is not so much that interfaces, like viral programmatics, are structured "like" texts. Rather, they are textual. If you think about it in terms of translation, of the interface as a zero of translation, a between-two-languages, then you can very quickly accumulate a whole complex of linguistic, rhetorical or schematic relations which "describe" a mechanics of signification in rather specific terms. Or to generalise, you can take "translation" & see how it translates terms like metaphor (literally) & proposition (structurally) & récit (analogously), borrowing for this the algorithm popular amongst analytic philosophers S is P, or S=P, or the grammatological formula of subject-predicate-object. The paradox of inequation which accompanies such formulae suggests how language itself functions by means of something like a viral propagation. The entire "system" of referentiality being thus underwritten by the necessity & impossibility of translation (as Derrida says), where every term, let alone every statement, contains a formal paradox (S is not P, etc.). In terms of an avant-garde practice, this interface relation is not so much a strategy as a condition. Where avant-garde-ism fails is in the lure of making a stand, let's say. Of seeking to occupy a position, or of laying claim to a particular referent. This implies that the interface itself defines, in a particular way, the meaning of "avant-garde," not simply as a term (which of course it does by necessity) but as a complex of relations (linguistic, socio-political, ethical, aesthetic, & so on). But while this obviates anything like a "rewriting" of interfaces, "in an avant-garde sense," it does provide, as you say, for a textual technique. Gregory Bateson, one of the key early thinkers of cybernetics, examined the technics of interfaces in terms of ecology, broadly defined. In contemporary cyber art this has resurfaced in the work of Andruid Kerne, who speaks about "interface ecologies," & in the performance work of Stelarc (as an outgrowth of Hugo Ball's Cabaret Voltaire performance piece). The important factor here is the relation of interface as technics to the idea of interface as text. Bateson anticipated by at least a decade the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, and in doing so articulated a cybernetic theory of sign-structures. Like Heidegger, he linked technics to poetics, & this techno-poetics provides one of the most adequate means, in my view, of conceptualising a "technique of the avant-garde."
B. the avant garde is a voyeur of the establishment and for this purpose makes use of the apparatus of contemporary media. your texts are full of eyes: the position/ing of the viewer and the aspect of eye/controll is important. what is the role of the viewer/reader in your work and where is the focus directed to?
Avant-gardes historically have played with the dynamics of spectacle, & to a degree the voyeuristic element has had to do with a certain self-fascination. Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle is a case in point-social critique modelled on the performativity of its own critical practice. In fact the Situationists increasingly demonstrated this, even as their withdrawal from society became more & more acute (resurfacing only in clandestine ways during the 1968 student protests, etc.). Removed from society & from "social responsibility," the Situationists came more & more to resemble pure consumers of social spectacle, whose world view was objectified to a point of simulacral abstraction & solipsism. This is something of an exaggeration, but it is important not to lose sight of the performative element, even in its most sublimated forms. Anti-social withdrawal for the Situationists was also a form of self-preservation-to see critically & yet not be seen, not be plugged back in to the surveillance loop of "public" spectacle. But this withdrawal is itself performative, & thus always a performance for an other-orientated, as you say, by a pre-occupation with various institutions & "establishments" (not least the institution of "resistence"). Looked at in these terms, avant-gardism seems to be caught up in an oedipal double-bind. Despite the military etymology of the term, avant-gardism stops short of anything more than symbolic patricide (i.e. actual revolution, industrial sabotage, terrorism, etc.). While intellectuals like Sartre have often flirted with violence & hard-line rhetoric, there remains an element of play-acting which separates the practitioners of art engagé, for instance, from groups like the Baader-Meinhof cell. But this is one of the difficulties that arise when you treat avant-gardism as necessarily utopian (negative or otherwise). Placing someone like Warhol in these terms is far more complicated. Warhol's affectless cool & radical expropriation of mimetic forms, presented him as a virtual zero point of spectacle, on the one hand, & omnipresent voyeur on the other. All of this had a major impact in the 60s & 70s with minimalism & conceptual art, nouvelle vague, nouveau roman, Tel Quel, the Oulipo etc. People like Sol LeWitt, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain-Robbe Grillet, Philippe Sollers, Georges Perec, whose work might be described as neo-avant-garde, represent a shift away from the emotivism & politico-theological hysteria of Peter Burger's "historical avant-garde" & its immediate precursors & contemporaries (the Italian Futurists, Expressionists, et al.). The operations of spectacle are here incorporated into the technics or technique of "aesthetic production." The use of contemporary media is secondary in this respect. It is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that new media somehow obviates the critical discourses of the past. Hypertext, for example, does not "liberate" us from the problems of textuality, or even of "the book," let alone from more pervasive "hegemonic systems." The suggestion that it might has led to a great deal of highly complacent & retrogressive theorising of hypertext & hypermedia. This does not mean that whatever technological forms are available should not be "put to use," but that we should not lose sight of what technology itself implies-that is, how the poetics of techne imparts to all forms of media a textuality which requires accounting for. The greatest danger posed by new media to the concept of an avant-garde is its return to utopianism (above all the messianic rhetoric of Virilio & Baudrillard) & the assumption that certain technological forms (non-linear, rhizomatic, etc.) automatically enact a critique of the "society of spectacle" or the institutions of western capital.
C. gene youngblood defined the role for an artist some years ago as a mixture of networker (metadesigner) and leisure amateur (artist). today the aspect of machine and machinization dominates the role of artists in cyberspace and hypertext activities. will the machine dominate the future interface culture? is programming the last rule to follow for an artist today?
In Of Grammatology, published almost thirty years ago, Derrida elaborates a concept of the programme both in terms of cybernetic theory and in terms of its etymology as pro-gramme. This has to do not so much with what "comes before writing," but rather what "emplaces" writing. Derrida is following at least two trajectories here. The first follows from his characterisation of language as writing, evolved largely upon his notion of différance. The second follows from Heidegger's essay 'Die Frage nach der Technik,' in which Heidegger relates the essence of technology to emplacement or enframing (gestellen). In the same essay Heidegger makes the assertion, as I have mentioned above, that "techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic." In this sense, the pro-gramme is what, in writing, makes signification possible. Put in another way, it is what allows us to read Finnegans Wake or Un coup de dés. This marks something of a departure from the notion of a computer programme as application. Of course, computers are programmed by means of scripts & metalanguages, but this is not the same thing. Nevertheless, this might say something about the idea of programming as the "last rule" to follow for an artist today. On the other hand, while computers & "interface culture" are ubiquitous, the "domination" of the machine & of mechanisation may in fact, by a curious twist, be less the case today than at any other point since the industrial revolution. This has both to do with our conception of machine, but also with a certain literality. That is, in the so-called post-literacy era, machines have come to increasingly resemble language prostheses or textual apparatuses. In the post-analogue, digital world, machines are more often than not metaphors for electro-chemical systems operated by microcomputers. You might say nervous systems operated by artificial intelligence. This doubtless poses conceptual problems for the role of artists if it is to be defined as a play between the cybernetic & the anthropocentric ("metadesigner" & "leisure amateur"-although Youngblood's definition goes beyond this). The idea that technology is external to the private world of the artist is a fallacy, as is the idea that technology is external to language, or that language resembles a machine on the basis of a utilitarian function, etc. Each of these ideas proposes an objectification by which the individual (the artist in this case) may put this or that to work in the external world & then withdraw into the self (at leisure, as it were). Of course this is not the case, just as it is not the case that we can forget about language until we need it for the sake of "having" or "communicating" an idea. What this says about the emplacements of cyberspace, however, is a different matter. But the point remains that, regardless of the particular manifestation of machine aesthetics from one historical moment to another, artists have always been what we might call technology workers. Language, writing, from the time of its mythical inception, has been thought of as a technics or memory prosthesis. A seemingly primitive machine which remains, nevertheless, more complex than our most advanced computers.
4 January 2002