Avant-Garde Networking

At the inauguration of the conference Nordic Avant-Garde 1975-2000 in Copenhagen today, Ellef Prestsæter proposes a rethinking of the relation between avant-gardes and networks.

Lea Porsager, Soil Solarization (a.k.a. the Sønderholm Experiment), Kunsthal Aarhus 2014.
Lea Porsager, Soil Solarization (a.k.a. the Sønderholm Experiment), Kunsthal Aarhus 2014.

My title echoes the heading of an interview I did for Kunstkritikk with the Danish scholar Tania Ørum some three years ago, prior to the launch of the anthology A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries 1900–1925 (“The Avant-Garde as Network”, April 23, 2012). At the time, we seemed to concur on at least one thing: the concept of the avant-garde was booming in historical research, but had more or less disappeared from the vocabulary of contemporary criticism. Two books published by Verso this year suggest that the situation is changing today: in the introduction to his account of the previous 25 years of art, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, Hal Foster admits to keeping faith with “the old idea of an avant-garde”, while John Roberts, for his part, refuses to treat the “avant-garde” merely as an historical category, insisting on its “continuing dynamism and critical content”. The latter’s Revolutionary Times and the Avant-Garde provides a defence of what he sees as a social and political turn in recent art, as well as a substantial contribution to the overall theorization of the avant-garde.

Hubert van den Berg et al.  (red.), A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries 1975-2000. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2012.
Hubert van den Berg et al. (ed.), A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries 1975-2000. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2012.

Still, whether we think of the historical present as bad new days or as “revolutionary times”, it is unclear, to say the least, how the concept of the avant-garde might apply to contemporary and recent practices. Needless to say, this is likely to be one of the crucial questions when the Nordic Network of Avant-Garde Studies reassembles in Copenhagen on December 3–5 in order to prepare the fourth and final volume in the series of anthologies on The Avant-Gardes in the Nordic Countries, covering the years 1975–2000. As Ørum put it three years ago: “We’ll have to discuss the degree to which one may speak meaningfully about the avant-garde in a contemporary context. The people I wrote about in my sixties book explicitly understood themselves as part of an avant-garde; few people do so today.”

What I want to propose here relates somewhat obliquely to this question. Rather than taking the artistic practices from the period as my point of departure, I dwell on what has been described as the defining concept of our era: “the network”. The concept came into prominence as such in the last quarter of the previous century, impelled by new network technologies as well as developments in network science. Networks, we have come to learn, are everywhere. Life, economies, eco-systems, neural activity, Shakespeare plays – just about any phenomenon is seen as inherently networked or as conforming to network models. Avant-gardes, too, are sometimes seen as networks. It might be interesting to note that while the concept of the avant-garde performs a temporalisation of a spatial phenomenon (as a military term, “avant-garde” refers to a group of soldiers ahead of others in space rather than time), network visualisations, inversely, typically spatialise temporal processes. Apparently in line with such an insight, the French artist Robert Filliou once advocated the wholesale replacement of the notion of the avant-garde with that of an “eternal network.” More recently, the idea that the avant-garde as such should be conceived of as a network has become central to avant-garde studies. Inspired by two compelling curatorial and editorial projects from 2014, I want to propose a rethinking of avant-garde history as fundamentally implicated in and generative of networks of different kinds, ultimately with the goal of reconstituting the avant-garde as a site of intense artistic, political and scholarly struggles about art’s relation to life, new technologies, social movements and transformative politics. How, then, do avant-gardes and networks go together?

“It’s a Network”

It’s been ten years since the Dutch scholar Hubert van den Berg first launched the idea that the avant-garde is best conceived of as a network, which he did in the Danish anthology En tradition af opbrud: Avantgardernes tradition og politik. This idea would prove highly influential in the following decade, particularly within Nordic avant-garde research, at the time about to become established as a field of its own. Van den Berg’s starting point was his perception that existing conceptions of the historical avant-garde (roughly, early 20th century movements such as Futurism, Constructivism, Dada, and Surrealism) were based upon “imprecise and ultimately inaccurate” criteria that either delimited the phenomenon too broadly or narrowly (the quotations here are taken from an English version of the essay, published in the journal Arcadia in 2006). Rightly noting that the various concepts of the avant-garde often carry value judgments, and recognising the importance of going beyond the self-understanding of certain actors as avant-gardists, van den Berg insisted on an empirical conceptualisation based on “demonstrable data”.

Here he turned to the figure of a “non-hierarchical network with several nodes wherein various lines come together, but also with rips, rents and ruptures”. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of the rhizome, van den Berg suggested interpreting “the avant-garde as a network […] constituting a project in the sense of a common enterprise to be realised”. Readers might wonder whether rhizomatic multiplicities are at all compatible with the project of a “unity still to come” (van den Berg here refers to Habermas’s idea of modernity as an unfulfilled project); nevertheless his essay should not be seen as an attempt to articulate a full-fledged Deleuze-Guattarian conception of the avant-garde. Rather, what he proposes is a historiographic mode of mapping the nodes and edges of the avant-garde network.

Cubism and Abstract Art, Alfred H. Barr, 1936.
Cubism and Abstract Art, Alfred H. Barr, 1936.

In order to explain his mapping procedure he used the example of the Hungarian magazine Ma, which in the years 1922–23 repeatedly “listed a dozen other avant-garde reviews from Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States and Yugoslavia”. The items on such lists could then, van den Berg suggested, be distributed across a map of Europe and be combined with similar lists, in a step-by-step reconstruction of the “historical network of the early avant-garde”. Ma, then, is understood as a vehicle or infrastructural element of the avant-garde network as well as a partial representation of it. At a time when more source material was becoming available for researchers (through the discovery, opening up and digitisation of archives), van den Berg called for the “collective and interdisciplinary enterprise” of mapping and inventorying this network of the historical avant-garde.

His call was put forward in the right place, in a Danish anthology whose editors and readership were eager to respond to it. Indeed, the notion of the avant-garde as network became instrumental in forging a sense of coherence to the activities of the then recently established Nordic Network of Avant-Garde Studies. When the first volume of the research network’s major publication venture A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries appeared in 2012, van den Berg figured as one of the editors and even contributed a substantial introduction which rehearsed several of the arguments from the 2005 essay.

The notion of the avant-garde as network has served this research community well in several ways, of which I want to highlight two. First, the model allowed the group to see historical connections that had hitherto gone unnoticed. As Tania Ørum put it in my interview with her in 2012:

In a Nordic context, it is actually only when you see the networks that you discover the avant-garde, at least in the early period. The people that were radical in one way or another did not seem to fit into the mainstream of the national traditions in the Nordic countries. They were looked upon as odd, isolated individuals, because the very narrow national research tradition prevalent in the Nordic countries did not link them to the international movements. As soon as you focus on the artistic networks they were part of, their work begins to make sense.

Gego [Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt], Reticulárea, 1969, Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas. Foto: Paolo Gasparini/Fundación Gego.
Gego [Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt], Reticulárea, 1969, Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas. Photo: Paolo Gasparini/Fundación Gego.

Relatedly, the notion of the avant-garde as a “non-hierarchical network” provided a useful tool to challenge certain established ways of conceiving cultural history in general (and perhaps avant-garde histories in particular), most importantly the idea that the ‘real thing’ always occurs in centres such as Paris, Berlin or New York and subsequently spreads to more peripheral locations such as the Nordic countries, resulting here in practices which are commonly deemed derivative, belated or somehow compromised.

Secondly, the notion served to bypass certain stalemate and at times paralysing discussions around the definition of the avant-garde, thus providing a more flexible framework for coordinating the work of scholars whose interests and perspectives necessarily vary. In line with this, the editors refer to first volume as a montage, a “network of interrelated case studies”. However, as a substantial conceptualisation of the avant-garde this notion of the network arguably has very restricted explanatory power. Ultimately, van den Berg’s notion of the avant-garde as network begs the question of what an avant-garde is; for what it is, exactly, that spreads through the network, and how does an avant-garde network differ from other kinds of networks? The problem is related to what is often described as the poverty or banality of network visualisations, where the assumption is that everything can be reduced to nodes and edges. For what constitutes a connection here? According to such a network conception, it seems that if you are able to somehow connect a phenomenon to something that is already (according to some criteria or other) recognised as ‘avant-garde’, it may in turn be defined as belonging to the avant-garde. In fact, the language of graph models, nodes and edges seems perfectly able to accommodate traditional ideas of cultural history as being structured by or made legible through lines of influence, temporal succession (or coincidence) and stylistic markers; notions that avant-garde practice and historiography have typically sought to challenge.

I am clearly overstating my case here in the spirit of provocation. I should note that van den Berg expressly acknowledges the objection that his model “reduces the avant-garde to an organisational entity”. There is, however, something problematic about the tendency here to think that the concept of the “network” provides the answer to the question of the avant-garde (in the same way that “networks” supposedly solve conceptual problems in many other fields).

It is tempting, therefore, to join media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in questioning how designating something as a network – the proclamation “it’s a network!” – became “a valid answer: the end, rather than the beginning, of an explanation”.

Systemics #4: The Aarhus Rapport – Avant-Garde as Network (or, the Politics of the Ultralocal), Kunsthal Aarhus 2014. Archive section collected and organized by Anne Kølbæk Iversen.
Systemics #4: The Aarhus Rapport – Avant-Garde as Network (or, the Politics of the Ultralocal), Kunsthal Aarhus 2014. Archive section collected and organized by Anne Kølbæk Iversen.


I am not saying that I am tired of networks, in the manner of Deleuze and Guattari, who stated they were “tired of trees” when outlining their concept of the rhizome. Rather than advocate the substitution of the concept of the network with some other term, I would like to propose that avant-garde scholars promote its proliferation. Such an endeavour might start by acknowledging that there are more than one kind of network. In the words of Alexander R. Galloway, a crucial contributor to contemporary discussions on networks (in media studies and beyond):

There are many kinds of networks; they are not internally simple, nor globally uniform. Some networks are rigid and hierarchical, while others are flexible and resist hierarchy. Some networks […] tend to create order; others […] to dissolve it. In the hands of the American military, networks are classified not only as communications tools but as weapons systems, while in the hand of antiglobalisation activists, networks are mobilised as tools for disruption and evasion. Thus, I mean to point out the differences between different kinds of networks, both in their architectonic shape and in their values and motivations, but also to point out that different network forms might be in conflict with one another and, indeed, might be specifically derived to exploit or disrupt other network forms (just as terrorist networks exploit global networks of travel, mobile communications, and mass media).

Radical Software, Volume I, No. 5. Realistic Hope Foundation, Spring 1972.
Radical Software, Volume I, No. 5. Realistic Hope Foundation, Spring 1972.

Adding to this, we should note that there are many different and competing theorisations of networks, not only in so-called network science, but across the fields of the natural and social sciences as well as those of cultural studies. Finally, we can see that there is a whole range of different networks operative throughout avant-garde history. I already mentioned Robert Filliou and his engagement with mail art networks, but consider also Filippo T. Marinetti, throwing “nets (filets) of images or analogies” into the “mysterious sea of phenomena” in order to capture “whatever is most evanescent and ineffable in matter” in his 1912 “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature”. Compare that to Roland Barthes’ call nearly six decades later for a movement from work to text, in a programmatic 1971 article attempting to set the terms for the neo-avant-garde: “the metaphor of the Text is that of the network (réseau); if the Text extends itself, it is as a result of a combinatory systematic (an image, moreover, close to current biological conceptions of the living being)”. Or take a 1972 issue of Radical Software, an important organ of the early video movement in the US, where the keywords on the cover speak volumes about a conception of networks informed by the cybernetic thinking prevalent at the time, traversing natural systems, countercultural movements and technical systems alike: “Visionary technology, Process evolution, You are the media, Feedback-feedforward, Networking, The Second Coming of Television, Videosphere, New Clear Vision, Electronic literacy, High-Tech, Bio-technology, Organic re-focusing, Alternatives, Transformations in media America …”  At the same time, the Venezuelan artist Gego was presenting her amazing Reticuláreas, suggesting other kinds of connectivity, complexity and modes of embeddedness. Fast-forward to 1997, and Bifo Berardi is interviewed on Italian public TV, looking back at the phenomenon of Luther Blissett, a so-called “multiple-use name”, claimed by a number of artists and activists, that emerged with early internet culture:

MASSARINI: But why was he born in cyberspace? Is that a more fertile soil? Is it because communication is easier there than in the traditional media?
BIFO: Well, I think that the Net is the place where the loss of meaning is more apparent and clear. If I communicate through a screen, by a name that can’t be verified, then everything re-emerges, I can lie, multiply, abstract … In our everyday lives we lie all the time, but we’re ashamed of it, and we bump into security checks, someone wants to see our ID card. On the Net, thank God – nay, no thanks to God – we are beyond that block, beyond that necessity.
MASSARINI: So he was born on the Net as a metaphor of the Net itself, and at the same time as a metaphor of the whole society. Is this what you mean?
BIFO: Yes, it is.

Luther Blisset: Totò, Peppino e la guerra psichica, 1996.
Luther Blisset: Totò, Peppino e la guerra psichica, 1996.

Further, we could consider the late Mark Lombardi’s diagramming of power relations, the American writer Tan Lin’s notion of a “novel in a network”, the phenomenon currently branded as “network painting”, or, in a very different register, all the different modes and notions of networking involved in art’s “social turn” the past two decades.

This quick tour through avant-garde history, where the stops were drawn more or less randomly from the top of my head, the anarchy of my bookshelf and the internet, is obviously not exhaustive. But it serves to highlight the sheer range of different network models that can be unearthed or unravelled in avant-garde history, from the theoretically expounded to the sculpturally crafted, across varying communications networks, “discourse networks”, theoretical paradigms, speculative collectivities, sociopoetic works (to recall Craig Saper’s memorable phrase from his important book Networked Art) and face-to-face assemblies.

In making this list I am guilty of what is often reproached as a conceptual slippage associated with network thinking. As Wendy Chun has pointed out, networks tend to “compromise the distinction between the constructed and the natural, the theoretical and the empirical”, to the effect that it is “difficult to separate network analysis from the networks themselves”, or to decide whether the networks are actually out there or produced through acts of conceptualisation. In a sense, what I want to propose is that we embrace this confusion as potentially fruitful for avant-garde research, and confront the notion that “the avant-garde is a network” with the myriad networks – metaphorical, material, imagined – that can be traced throughout avant-garde history. The study of such networks might contribute to making the idea of the avant-garde as network richer, denser, more complex and exciting, and also root it more firmly in the specificities of the various artistic practices.

John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. London, Verso: 2014.
John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. London, Verso: 2014.

Indeed, the mode of research I am suggesting here could be seen as parallel to the way art historians such as Hal Foster and Ina Blom have written avant-garde history on the basis of the temporal structures and models of historical meaning derived from the analysis of the practices in question. Such an approach makes particularly good sense since, as John Roberts recently emphasised, the avant-garde has always been “indivisible from its theoretical investments and transformations and therefore from its revisions, reconstructions and retreats”. This insight leads Roberts to formulate an eminently critical conception of the avant-garde:

In shifting the theorisation of the avant-garde into an account of the avant-garde as a historically open-ended research programme, and thereby moving beyond discussing the avant-garde simply across stylistic and formal dividing lines, we are able to see more clearly why the avant-garde still remains an unfolding site of conflictual and productive claims on art and the extra-artistic.

While this idea of “the avant-garde as a historically open-ended research programme” to a certain extent resonates with van den Berg’s notion of the avant-garde as a network constituting an incomplete project, it refrains from projecting “a unity to come.” Moreover, and crucially in this context, it serves to foreground avant-garde movements and practices as sites of a productive self-reflexivity whose perspectives it seems worthwhile picking up on.

Avant-Garde Networking 0001

A similar understanding seems to have been the driving force of the exhibition project Aarhus Rapport – Avant-Garde as Network (or, the Politics of the Ultralocal), which took place at Kunsthal Aarhus last year as the fourth and final iteration of the Kunsthal’s ambitious Systemics series. The show was put together by a motley curatorial crew including, amongst others, Joasia Krysa (director of the Kunsthal at the time), art critic and historian Lars Bang Larsen, literary historian Marianne Ping Huang (who has been an important actor in the Nordic Network for Avant-Garde Studies), artist Lea Porsager, and writer and editor Mathias Kokholm (Antipyrine Publishing).

Lea Porsager, Soil Solarization (a.k.a. the Sønderholm Experiment), Kunsthal Aarhus 2014.

The exhibition took the publication Århus Rapport 1961–1969 as the starting point and fulcrum of a whole series of different events, a heterogeneity mirrored in the content of the report from 1969, which compiled Aarhusian instances of avant-garde art in the 60s: “The book is a registration, a catalogue – not of the works from a particular art exhibition, but of a new kind of artwork in a certain epoch, as seen from Aarhus”. Crucially, the show did not take the form of “a philological reconstruction of historical events and influences as reflected in the Rapport”, but rather of proliferating connections, re-enactments as well as anti-re-enactments, a seminar, several publications, as well as new works by “international” artists such as Dave Hullfish Bailey and Jakob Jakobsen. It also included new artworks from our epoch as seen from the farm Sønderholm north of Aarhus (the show reintegrated the exhibition Inquiries in Earth and Art, which had taken place at the farm some months earlier). One of the Sønderholm works, Lea Porsager’s video installation Soil Solarization (a.k.a. the Sønderholm Experiment), became the centrepiece of the main display at the Kunsthal. It was described as a “putting-together of participants in the Sønderholm community” and featured “a day of ‘constellation work’ with ants, ferns, wool, wooden poles, and people”. Porsager’s work thus generated multiple and weird connectivities, whose common denominator seemed to be that they went beyond the connections of tradition and the straightforward personal acquaintance.

There were other networks present in the Kunsthal too. The original 1969 book, made available in a facsimile edition, obviously served to document, construct and disseminate a particular network of artists and practices. Anne Kølbæk Iversen’s “archive section”, with material culled from the personal collections of artists represented in the book, suggestively unfolded the Århus Rapport through the network topology of a temporary archive. The Museum of Ordure presented a collection of films made shareable through peer-to-peer networks, and in a curatorial essay Lars Bang Larsen suggested considering historical space as “a scale-free network”, whatever that might mean. In any case, the show made clear that while avant-gardes do indeed network, in turn they also become networked, by nonhuman (technical, animal, mineral etc.) as well as human actors (critics included). This was about avant-garde networking, then, rather than simply the avant-garde as network: here, something was actively worked, reworked, networked.

Systemics #4: The Aarhus Rapport – Avant-Garde as Network (or, the Politics of the Ultralocal), Kunsthal Aarhus 2014. Archive section collected and organized by Anne Kølbæk Iversen.
Systemics #4: The Aarhus Rapport – Avant-Garde as Network (or, the Politics of the Ultralocal), Kunsthal Aarhus 2014. Archive section collected and organized by Anne Kølbæk Iversen.

Significantly, the exhibition did not crystallise into a straightforward statement about the avant-garde as network. Walking around the Kunsthal one couldn’t help but feel a certain mismatch between the straightforward and generic title Avant-Garde as Network and the elements of the exhibition. Hovering between the historical document of the Aarhus report and the corresponding notion of the ultralocal, the phrase “Avant-Garde as Network” served to install a kind of allegorical set-up, with no clear suggestion as to the title’s possible reference, thus inviting the visitors themselves to imagine the networks that were brought into play in the exhibit.

Fortunately, the perfect manual to help visitors navigate the gap between title and content was published more or less simultaneously with the opening of the show: Lars Bang Larsen’s edited anthology Networks, published as part of Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press’ book series Documents of Contemporary Art. (It is worth pausing here in order to note that this series of anthologies focusing on “a particular theme, practice, or concern that is of central significance to contemporary visual culture” now boasts 37 titles, including Utopias, Participation, Appropriation, Systems, Abstraction, and The Everyday, while “the avant-garde” is not among the keywords “defining art today”.)

Lars Bang Larsen (ed.), Networks, Cambridge/London: MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery, 2014.
Lars Bang Larsen (ed.), Networks, Cambridge/London: MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery, 2014.

Acknowledging that the notion of the network “revolves inescapably around the internet, today’s network of networks”, Bang Larsen’s compendium of snippets and excerpts from artist writings, sociology, philosophy, media studies and other fields, still insistently and admirably “takes its historical beginning before the Net and attempts to point beyond its domination in the present” (nothing less than an avant-garde ambition!). His introduction sketches what can be seen as the beginnings of a study someone should take on, the sooner the better: an account of how different concepts of networks have evolved over time (what Reinhardt Koselleck would call the concept’s “historical semantics”). Even more interesting in this context is Bang Larsen’s insistence on a certain “methodological promiscuity” related to “multifarious definitions and histories of the network”, something which makes the book an indispensable tool to counter the idea that “it’s a network” provides an answer to anything. Moreover, the anthology makes clear the extent to which networks have often been a concern of art, beyond the mere organisational level. In art, Bang Larsen notes, “networks and webs cease to be instruments and infrastructure and can be acknowledged as phenomena that range across the infra, the macro and the in-between”.

It is hard to imagine a more fitting syllabus for a crash course in avant-garde networking than the one you find in Bang Larsen’s book. It may serve as a rich resource for the rethinking of avant-garde history as fundamentally implicated in and generative of networks of different kinds. Potential research questions could include: How can the current theorising of networks be mobilised in order to reinvigorate the notion of the historical avant-garde as a network? What might, for instance, an actor-network theoretical approach to the historical avant-garde be like? (Curiously, there is no reference to Bruno Latour in the first volume of A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries.) Can models of “network production” (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) or the modulation of life-forces in “societies of control” (Deleuze) be seen as prefigured in avant-garde practices? Or do such practices rather provide resources to counter new forms of capture, control and protocol? Reversely, how may avant-garde research contribute to the urgent discussions about the character of networks, its historical semantics, experiential modes, relations to changing technical networks, and oscillations between the material, the metaphorical, conceptual and imagined? How does the networking of so-called relational art relate to previous forms of avant-garde networking? And how can network theories enable fresh approaches to one of the most tired problematics in avant-garde research, related to agency, causality, effects and the question of how, when and why specific avant-gardes made a difference, or, as is more commonly affirmed, failed to do so? The questions keep multiplying. Whether we are artists, historians or just want to stay connected, it seems we have a lot of knotty networking to do.

 Ivan Galuzin, Singular Impossibility, 2014.