Saturday, January 19, 2008

Relations between sound poetry and visual poetry: The path from the optophonetic poem to the multimedia text, Christian Scholz

A brief history of the development of scores for sound poetry during the twentieth century is presented. The work of Hugo Ball, Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters is the focus for the early part of the century. From mid-century to end, the work of Franz Mon, Carlfriedrich Claus and Valeri Scherstjanoi is the focus.

Any attempt to distinguish between sound poetry and visual poetry is extremely difficult, for according to Reinhard Doehl's definition visual texts are sound texts without a sound. In other words visual texts are a sort of orchestral "score" for a sound text.

Futurist and dadaist sound poets have rightly stressed the difficulties to represent sound texts, as they approach the border of a semantic absence of meaning with regard to the nuances of sound.

But it was not until the invention of the tape recorder (in the fifties) which paved the way to solve the problem how to represent sound texts. The tape recording makes the original repetition of a once formed, perhaps even spontaneously formed, sound event available to us and offers the sound poet new methods of composing his texts similar to the methods of creating a film. After all the authentic sound poetic work only does exist in a tape recorded form.1

The techniques of computer sampling in the area of sound and refined video techniques in the visual area brought an enormous increase of audiovisual methods to recording. Nevertheless German sound poets hardly make use of these techniques today.

The aim of this essay is to present an annotated historical survey regarding the "scores" of sound poetry. But in doing so Bernd Scheffer points out a restriction: It's rather pointless to talk continuously of wordless, pre-verbal or nonverbal perceptions within a visual area.

The syntax of the visual area

In 1910 Guillaume Apollinaire propagated the use of phonographs to record the voices of poets. The Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti developed his strategy of "liberation of words" (parole in liberto), which was expected to produce the following effects:

* to set free words and sounds on the surface of a sheet of paper or in acoustic space

* to rediscover the spoken word for poetry and to use sounds of the world around us (onomatopoeia).

In the wake of Stephane Mallarme, Marinetti revolutionized typography. The visual organization of the tavole parolibere was characterized by "freely" spreading out scraps of sentences, single words and asyntactical groups of words or isolated letters. The arrangement produced the effect that those scraps of sentences, single words, etc. fit into expressive and often semantic, pictorial configurations - the spatial constellation produced the meaning and the context. Traditional grammatical syntax is replaced by spatial syntax.

As the antitraditional and revolutionary use of typographic design produces a peculiar visual effect of expression - containing also acoustic qualities -- the text is approaching the picture and the musical "score" thus transcending the borders of music and pictorial and fine arts.

Sound poems: Hugo Ball

The dadaist poet Hugo Ball knew the first examples of the tavole parolibere of the Italian futurists. Yet the "typographic revolution" was not reflected in his poems. On July 23, 1916 he recited for the first time his "Karawane" (Caravan), also called "Elefantenkarawane" (Elephant Caravan), together with other sound poems in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The different written versions of this sound poem were only authorized in the typescript, which is included in the manuscript edition of the Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected Poems),2 whereas Ball didn't authorize the two "extra" elaborated versions of this poem for the publication in the Dada-Almanach planned by Kurt Wolff and in the Dada-Almanach edited by Richard Huelsenbeck and published by Erich Reiss, Berlin, in 1920.3

The visual version of the sound poem "Karawane" (figure i) is characterized by its headline, which seems to be in motion, and the use of different types of writing in the seventeen lines of the text. According to Jeremy Adler and Ulrich Ernst a sort of undulatory motion is produced by the alternative use of italics and roman type, while the left column produces a soothing effect by using a homogeneous type and small letters, thus bringing about a classical balance in the whole composition.4 But the visual arrangement (for instance concerning the dynamic process) is not a good start for the interpretation of this sound poem. Any interpretation must start with the title which alludes to the recipient's imagination, thus giving him the impulse for the onomatopoeic effects.5

The optophonetic poem: Raoul Housmann

Raoul Hausmann saw the lack of suitable means for recording sound poems and so he tried to solve this problem by creating his "optophonetic poems." In 1918 he started writing his "Plakat" and "optophonetische Gedichte" (Poster and optophonetic poems) - a unique poetic product of his creative activities. Hausmann approached the methods of the plastic and graphic arts by creating the optic and the acoustic dimension of the words and - with the help of typography - created his "abstract poems," which were expected to disclose the meaning inherent in the letters.

Inspired by a reading of August Stratum in 1915, Hausmann's reflections on the "creation of an energetic diction" first resulted in a new typographic development of the "modulation of speech." He was then aware of the new quality of the futurist typography, which made him realize that "reading or the communication of sound can only take an effect as an optical impression."6 "The new typography was an optical support" for the "purely phonetic poems."7 As Hausmann's poems were created in a printing-office by a purely accidental lining up of different letters in a row, he also called the poems letter-poems, phonetic poems of letters or letter-posters.

Two of his first "letter-poems," both from 1918, "fmsbwt" and "OFFEAH" (figures), accidentally created in the letter-case (probably as a mere proof), do not yet show the proclaimed visual qualities which the tovole parolibere that the futurists had already achieved in 1915. Hausmann's printing-system was still characterized by straight lines, the retention of writing left or writing right and the simplicity and monotony of the chosen letters. Because of the mainly accidental construction of the poster-poems the consonants of the letter-case dominated. The use of vowels and of consonants and the forming of syllables of vocalic and consonantal elements were evidently reduced.

The accumulation of these vowels and syllables, connected with punctuation marks (hyphen, full stop, question mark), which appear to be significant, is a real nuisance to the reader and - because of the lack of well-known words and associations of words (interpretation of the sound) - prevents intelligibility. These poets consciously denied the use of language asa means for discursivity Hausmann; revolt against normal listening and reading habits jeopardized the familiar relation between writing and meaning.

But this chance operation was not the only principle of creation. By replacing single letters forthe sake of certain acoustic qualities in "OFFEAH," Hausmann showed his intention to form his material. "I had four different copies of these poems printed. Because of the tone colour I later eliminated the m ii of the first poem and replaced it by the qu i ie of the second."8 Hausmann also used vowels mainly to comprehend the sound forming course of motion in all phases of modulation.

In 1918 or 1919, Hausmann created the sound poem "kp'erioum" (figure 3), in which he continued the compository tendencies of the two former poster-- poems and widened them out into the "optophonetic poem." The visualization of the letters on the surface of a sheet of paper caught the spectator's eye. The typographic arrangement approached the tavole parolibere of the Italian futurists who for instance tried to express the loudness and the pronunciation of their combinations of letters by capital letters or bold type. According to Hausmann the reader was expected to hear the intended sounds with the help of the optical structure of the poem. "The letters of a sound poem are arranged in such a way that they convey the sound."9

The flowing of the vowels evidently seems to be stopped by the static character of the consonants. By itself their graphic variety provides our interior ear with familiar signals which can easily be transformed into phonemes by our memory of communication and illustrates the transition of sound to word, of lines without a meaning to writing. Hausmann's reading of his sound poems, "kp'erioum," for example, is available on records of the fifties and sixties.10 But they do not really represent the "original" sound of the dada years, as the reading is hampered by an antiquated usage of speaking. "Associations of sounds - almost audible onomatopoetica, reminiscences of foreign languages"" - can be perceived. The consequence is that sound poets must give up the attempt to record sound poems visually in a kind of "notation," which can be duplicated only by poets.

Comments: Kurt Schwitters"' "Ursonate"

We know from Kurt Schwitters's publications that he insisted on the sound recording of his works, especially of his"Ursonate." Schwitters's cooperation with the "Suddeutscher Rundfunk Stuttgart" (South German Radio Stuttgart) in the year 1932 is preserved in the German Radio Archive in Frankfurt/ Main. A few years ago the complete reading of the "Ursonate" (with a reading time of about forty-one minutes) was published by WERGO, Mainz.12 The long process of coming into being of this sound poem - Schwitters started writing it already in 1921 - shows the poet's difficulties with the written version and the publication of this sound poem. The complete version of the "Ursonate" appeared in 1932 (Men 24), typographically prepared by Jan Tschichold, as the cooperation of El Lissitzky failed.

Kurt Schwitters's "Ursonate" does not show the high visual qualities of Raoul Hausmann's "optophonetic poems." This is the result of Schwitters's specific method of composing and creating neologisms. Unfortunately space prevents going into details13 and analyzing Jan Tschichold's typographic version of Schwitters's "Ursonate" as compared with Schwitters's "score" of the "Ursonate" which does exist. Excerpts of the notation, respectively the .score" of the "Ursonate," which would be of interest for this essay, have not been published up to now by the publishing houses Arche, Zurich, and Haymon, Innsbruck. The existence of a "score" shows, however, Schwitters's hope that other interpreters would recite his "Ursonate."

Articulations: Franz Mon

"(A)rticulations"14 from 1959 was Franz Mon's first publication, containing texts, essays and some sound poems. "Articulations," reflected phonetic experiments of the 192os. Of course it was - according to Mon - problematic to fix an "articulation" in writing, for it was in the poet's view an acoustic presentation. It was hardly possible to reproduce in writing the "complete movement of the articulation, the range of articulation between the extreme poles of vocal sounds and the consonantal plosives."15

There was, however, a special course of articulation that was connected with the written and graphic presentation. A typical example for this form of presentation is the sound poem "aus was du wirst" (of that which you consist) (flgure 4), contained in the volume "articulation" and in the anthology Movens.16

Indeed there are several variant readings for this "articulation," but only one of them is really striking, namely the variant which must be read diagonally from top to bottom and must be duplicated in an "attempt of concentration" by the recipient-reader-viewer.'7 In this we can see that the alleged "simultaneous pattern" offers relations in every possible direction provided the spectator is willing to use the time to develop an intentional understanding of a special kind of speaking beyond the normal way of speaking.18 Thus, "speaking immediately along the axis of articulation in the form ofa dance of the lips, the tongue and the teeth. "19

The creative object is formed by the spectator's endeavor - the noted down text is only "a rough copy, an instruction for what cannot be fixed since beyond the stream of meditation.2The recipient must set the "tremendous complexes (of the simultaneous pattern) into motion,"21 contained in the totality produced according to strict rules with a clear reduction of semantic meaning.22

In the "articulation" "aus was du wirst" the course of the articulation is already mentioned in the title: "Its identity is preserved by changing the well-known into the similar and so on."23 The single syllables which the recipient-reader-- viewer is expected to pick up are specified on the coarse-meshed raster. In the process of articulation the initial form "rakon" develops - about the remembered syllable of "kram," "hare," etc. - into the final form "drustar." The same can be applied to the sequence of sounds in the lines above, but with certain restrictions: The sounds develop in a different way, i. e., sometimes without a widening effect ("egs," "drie," "odt"), sometimes by way of variations ("kram," "kras," "kars"), by polishing ("tar," "usd") and reducing ("md," "rd," "hn") respectively they become "rigid" in the final point.

Carlfriedrich Claus was "a performer" among those readers who accepted the exercises to duplicate the "articulations" "aus was du wirst," "sinks" and "fast durchlassig" with the help of their own organs of speech. As "a performer," he describes "his experiences with the speech in a review of Mon's book "articulations": Speech is here in its microscopic aspect (the transparency of the single phonemes concerning the gestures and tininess behind) and the macroscopic aspect of the multilateral processes. On different levels different processes are happening. The structures of time of these processes differ. They proceed 'simultaneously' but at a different speed. In addition there is the primary moment that typographies are concerned. By way of distribution and by the arrangement of the substance of writing the typographies start in the spectator's mind an optical process (because: letter is equivalent to acoustic signal) which produces[or] initiates an acoustic effect first, then a mental effect... 24

"Konstellative Artikulationen"

(articulations In the form of constellations): Carlfriedrich Claus

About 1954 Carlfriedrich Claus tried to record certain experiences or perceptions of speech (events or productions of the speech) and natural experiences "in pure forms of sound"25 and to provide a written notation of "sound texts" like "tong tong"26 (figure 5).

In 1959 Claus made experiments with his so called "Letternfeld" (a field of letters)27 (figure 6). A "Letternfeld" is an arrangement of vocals or vocals and consonants in typescript. In his "experiment" Claus tried to transform his "Letternfeld" into his "konstellative Artikulation" (articulation in the form of a constellation). For this purpose Claus made use of a microphone, a stop-watch and the trick button of a type recorder (switching off the erase button during the process of recording), which made it possible for him to interrupt recordings with other recordings on the same sound track.

The constellation of the two letters "i e" was recited several times and in a sort of temporal phase displacement thus producing a "konstellative Artikulation" (articulation in the form of a constellation) with a simultaneous and/or alternative "flashing" of the two vowels "I" and "e."28 Because of the restricted possibilities of a tape-recorder, planned for simpler needs at home, the experiment was only to an extent successful. Claus's sound poetic work, which he has created since 1959 is based on spontaneous improvizations of speech (respectively sound) or noise. These improvisations were recorded and transformed into sound texts, later broadcast by the West German Radio (Cologne) and the Bavarian Radio (Munich).29

Graphic representations of sound poems: Valeri Scherstianol

Valeri Scherstjanoi, born 1951 in Kazachstan, has lived in Germany (East) since 1979 and made friends with Carlfriedrich Claus. Deeply influenced by the Russian futurists, he uses Russian and German vocabularies and phonemes (respectively microparticles of phonemes)30 which can be seen in his "Bavarian sound poem" (1998) (figure7) and various notations of sound poems using Russian and German phonemes "Die Enge" (The narrowness), 1996 (figure 8).

Scherstjanoi opposes the merely vocal improvisations that avoid any form of written notation of sound poems and tries to replace the notation ofsound poems with the help of mere electro-acoustical methods of production. Scherstianoi thinks that mere electro-acoustical methods of production tend to develop into sheer abstractions of sounds.31 In contrast, Scherstianoi tries to keep a certain sound idea within its own limits, to put it down in writing and even to learn it by heart. For Scherstjanoi sound poetry must remain poetry, a mixture of sound and meaning.

The author describes the creation of his sound texts as follows:

1. Noting down - pronouncing the sounds in a loud or a slow voice, reading - taping - speaking (saying) etc.

2. Speaking - taping, listening to the recorded sounds - saying, listening to the recorded sound - noting down - saying .... As reading as I have written ... The hand-written texts are sound texts. The eyes see what the ears have heard ... The ears 'hear' the atmosphere of writing.32

With full concentration, the recipient-reader-viewer is able to re-enact in his mind the sound ideas which Scherstjanoi is performing on the stage. Cooperating with artists like Zoro Babel (percussionist) and video artists like Peider A. Defilla, Scherstjanoi's video performances increase the perception of the sound ideas. Apart from this effect, the visual level of the video films reflect Scherstjanoi's special kind of articulations. In this way the genius of both artists is maximized in their output.33

The multimedia text

Already in 1984 the Canadian author BP Nichol adapted some visual poems for the Apple-Computer.34 This software makes the texts visible in a temporal course on the screen and reminds us of the reduction of animation of letters in the visual sphere. The development of computer technology gives us a chance to adapt poems, i. e., the combination of texts, graphics, sounds, video clips etc. Experiments of this kind are emerging.35

Sound poetry is an art full of vigor which changes continually. The future of visual and sound poetry lies according to the author, on one hand, in the possibilities of computer technology (digital recording, adaptations, integrations of different texts, etc.). But it is not until new digital recording possibilities and the appearance of people who manage without the burden of the past (futurism, dadaism, concrete poetry), that new perspectives in the future will open. On the other hand, this development will proceed only by means of the genius of sound poets exploring the form of speech and the "alchemy of words" (Hugo Ball) on a sheet of paper and on stage without using any technical aids, to demonstrate the flexibility of the letters, the words and the microparticles of speech.

1 Mon, Franz. 1994. Franz Mon: Essays. Berlin: Gerald Wolf Janus Press, 318.

2 Ball, Hugo. 1963 Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected poems). Zurich: Verlag der Arche, 28.

3 Reprinted in Arp, Hans, and Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara. 1957. Dichtungen der Grunder / Dada Gedichte (Poetry of the originators / Poems of the Dadaists).

Zurich: Verlag der Arche, 43.

4 Adler, Jeremy and Ulrich Ernst. 1988. Text als Figur. Visuelle Poesie von der Antike bis zur Moderne

(Text as shape. Visual poetry from the beginnings to the modern times).

Weinheim: VCH, 265.

5 E. g. Ball, Hugo. 1978. Karawane, performed by "EXVOCO" (FUTURA. poesia sonora. Arrigo Lora-Totino, editor. Milan: Cramps Records, 7 LPs.

For further details about Ball's sound poetry see the author's website: christian.scholz (including comments on Hausmann's, Mon's, Claus's sound poetry)

6 Hausmann, Raoul, 1933. "Typographie." In: Hausmann, Raoul. 1982. Texte bis Vol. 1. Munich: edition text + Kritik, 183.

7 Hausmann, "Typographie," 183.

8 Hausmann, Raoul, 1958. Poeme phonetique. In Hausmann, Raoul. Coumer Dado. Paris: Editions Le Terrain Vague, 63.

9 Hausmann, Raoul. 1969. "Recherches sur le poeme phonetique" In De Tafelronde 14:3/4, 107.

10 E.g., digitally remastered recordings of the fifties and sixties. Hausmann, Roaul. 1997. Poemes Phonetiques. Rochechouart: Musee Departmental d'Art Contemporain; Limoges.

11 Erlhoff, Michael. 1982 Raoul Hausmann, Dadasoph. Hannover: Verlag zweitschrift, 195.

12 Schwitters, Kurt. 1932. Scherza der Ursonate (5. Mai 1932). In "lunapark 0,10." Marc Dachy, editor. 1999.

Marc Dachy, editor.1999. Brussels: sub rosa (SR So). Schwitters, Kurt. 1993. Ursonate. Original Performance by Kurt Schwitters. Mainz: WERGO records (WER 63042).

13 Scholz, Christian, 1989. "On Kurt Schwitters's URSONATE (1932)." In Musicworks 44. 7-23.

14 Mon, Franz. 1959. artikulationen. Pfullingen. (Without pagination).

15 Mon, Franz. 1960. [statement]. In Mon, Franz, editor. Movens. Wiesbaden: Limes Verlag, 113.

16 Mon, 111. Franz Mon "aus was du wirst," artikulationen. Pfullingen. Also in Mon, Movens, 113.


Mon, 111. Franz Mon "aus was du wirst," articulationen. Pfullingen.

19. Mon, artikulationen. Pfullingen, 31.


Mon, Artikulationen, Movens, 111.

24 Carlfriedrich Claus. 1960. "Sicht-, hdrbare Phasen umfassender Prozesse" (Visible and audible phases of comprehensive processes). Nota 4, 42.

25 Carlfriedrich Claus's discourses with Christian Scholz. 1990. Chemnitz-- Obermichelbach, tape.

26 Carlfriedrich Claus. iggi. "tongtong."

In Carlfriedrich, Claus. Erwachen am Augenblick (To be roused by the instant). SprachblItter. Karl-- Marx-Stadt, Munster, 54.

27 Lora-Totino, Arrigo, editor. 1978. FUTURA.. poesia sonora. Milan: Cramps Records, 7 LPs.

28 Carlfriedrich Claus. 1991. "Letternfeld." In Carlfriedrich Claus. Erwachen am Augenblick (To be roused by the instant). Sprachblatter. Karl-MarxStadt, Munster, 113.

29 Carlfriedrich Claus. 1993. "Lautaggregat." WDR Cologne: Studio Akustische Kunst. Chemnitz: Stadtische Kunstsammlungen. 1995 (001-95-CC). Carlfriedrich Claus. 1996. Basale Sprech-- OperationsrAume. Bavarian Radio, Munich.

30 Scherstianoi, Valeri. Interview.

http:/www.dickinson.edI departments/jermnglossen/ heftgvaleri.html

31 Scherstianoi, Valeri. 1996. In "den Rhythmen der Sprache oder wie gehe ich an die Produktion meiner Lauttexte heron?" (In the very rhythms ofthe speech or how I approach the creation of my sound texts?) Berlin, AprilMay, manuscript, 2 pages.

32 Scherstjanoi, "den Rhythmen der Sprache," 1

33 Scherstjanoi, Valeri. 1999. "Zwischen Herz and Him" (Between heart and brain). Video Performance by Valeri Scherstjanoi and Zoro Babel. Video Camera by Christoph Wirsing. Munich: B.O.A. Vdeofilmkunst Peider A. Defilla, July 16.

34 Nichol, BP 1984. "First Screening." Toronto: Underwhich Editions (Underwhich Software Series 1).

35 Wendt, Larry. 1995. Narrative and the World Wide Web. Art & Design, 45, "The Multimedia Text," 82-91.


Rothenberg Weinberstrasse 11 D-90587 Obermichelbach Germany

--Christian Scholz is a scholar of sound poetry. Since the mid-197os he has been a publisher of this form of oral research. Additionally, he has published books about German sound poetry and edited radio programs on the topic.

above copied from:

Sound Poetry - A Survey, Steve McCaffery

From Sound Poetry: A Catalogue, edited by Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, Underwich Editions, Toronto, 1978


The 1950s saw the development of what might be termed a third phase in sound poetry. Prior to this time, in a period roughly stretching from 1875 to 1928, sound poetry's second phase had manifested itself in several diverse and revolutionary investigations into language's non-semantic, acoustic properties. In the work of the Russian Futurists Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh, the intermedia activities of Kandinsky the bruitist poems of the Dadaists (Ball, Schwitters, Arp, Hausmann, Tzara) and the 'paroles in liberta' of the Italian Futurist Marinetti, the phonernatic aspect of language became finally isolated and explored for its own sake. Prior to this there had been isolated pioneering attempts by several writers including Christian Morgenstern (ca. 1875), Lewis Carroll ('Jabberwocky'), August Stramm (ca. 1912), Petrus Borel (ca. 1820), Moliere, the Silesian mystic Quirinus Khulman (1 7th century), Rabelais and Aristophanes. The second phase is convincing proof of the continuous presence of a sound poetry throughout the history of western literature. The first phase, perhaps better-termed, the first area of sound poetry, is the vast, intractible area of archaic and primitive poetries, the many instances of chant structures and incantation, of nonsense syllabic mouthings and deliberate lexical distortions still alive among North American, African, Asian and Oceanic peoples. We should also bear in mind the strong and persistent folkloric and ludic strata that manifests in the world's many language games, in the nonsense syllabery of nursery rhymes, mnemonic counting aids, whisper games and skipping chants, mouth music and folk-song refrain, which foregrounds us as an important compositional element in work as chronologically separate as Kruchenykh's zaum poems (ca. 1910) and Bengt af Klintburg's use of cusha-calls and incantations (ca. 1965). Consequently, the very attempt to write a history of sound poetry is a doomed activity from the very outset. For one thing, there is no 'movement' per se, but rather a complex, often oppositive and frequently antithetical interconnectedness of concerns - attempts to recover lost traditions mix with attempts to effect a radical break with all continuities. What is referred to by 'sound poetry' is a rich, varied, inconsistent phonic geneology against which we can foreground the specific developments of the last two decades.

Russian Futurism

In the work of Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh (ca. 1910) we find the first concerted attempts to isolate the concrete, phonic aspect of language as an autonomous focus of interest. In their manifesto The Word As Such comes the first decisive break with language's symbolic relation to an object, with the consequent disappearance of the thematic and the minimization of the semantic levels. For the Russian futurists, poetic language was to be characterized by its unique organization of the phonic, As Khlebnikov states, 'the element of sound lives a selforiented life.' The organization, then, of language around its own phonic substance, as a self-referring materiality, non- representational and escriptive rather than descriptive, took prime importance in their work. In Kruchenykh especially, the folkloric strata is significant; his concept of 'zaum' (or transrational language) was later to be described by Dada sound poet Raoul Hausmann as 'an old form of popular and folkloric language' and both Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh openly acknowledged their debt to popular forms. For Kruchenykh poetry was a conscious attempt to return language to its a-rational ground. It involved him in the open sacrifice of meaning as a constituent of the poem (or rather meaning in its restricted semantic sense) and the deployment of various 'poetic irregularities' such as clipped words, lexical hybrids, neologisms, and fragmentations.

Italian Futurism

FT Marinetti (1876-1944), the core architect of the Italian Futurist movement, developed a poetic technique called parole in liberta or words in freedom. It was an attempt at syntactic explosion, at the liberation of the word from all linear bondage and the consequent conversion of page, from a neutral surface holding neutral graphic signs, into a dynamic field of typographic and sonographic forces. In performance Marinetti laid heavy stress upon onornatopoeiac structures. Less interesting, morphologically, than the work of Kruchenykh (for in parole in liberta sound is still anchored in a representationality) one may think of Marinetti's work as an attempt to find a more basic connection between an object and its sign, a connection predicated upon the efficacy of the sonic as a direct, unmediated vector. Perhaps the most significant aspect of parole in liberta was its lasting effect upon the poem's visual notation. Marinetti's famous Bombardamento di Adrianapoli, for instance, is a stunning handwritten text of great visual excitement, employing different letter sizes, linear, diagonal and vertical presentations of non-gravitational text, all intended for vocal realization. It marks one of the earliest, successful attempts to consciously structure a visual code for free, vocal interpretation.


It can be safely said that the sonological advances of the futurists have been unfairly eclipsed by the historical prominence that the Dada sound poets have received. Hugo Ball (1886-1926) claims to have invented the 'verse ohne Worte' (poetry without words) which he also termed 'Lautgedichte' or soundpoem. Ball, in a diary entry for 1916, describes the compositional basis for this new poetry: 'the balance of vowels is weighed and distributed solely according to the values of the beginning sequence.' In actual fact, the form is little different from earlier attempts at the end of the nineteenth century by such poets as Morgenstern (Kroklokwafzi was published in 1905) and Paul Scheerbart (whose well known Kikaloku appeared in 1897). Tristan Tzara is noteworthy for his developmentof a pseudo ethnopoetry realized most successfully in his 'Poemes Negres': loose and often pataphysical translations f rom the African which Tzara then used for sound texts. The collective energies of Janco, Ball, Huelsenbeck, Tzara and Arp at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich produced the simultaneist poem: a high energy, performance oriented cacophony of whistling, singing, grunting, coughing and speaking. Partly based on the earlier work of Henri Barzun, the simultaneous poem stands as an early example of intermedia. De-fying categorization as either theatre, music or poetry, it emphasized the improvisatory, spontaneous and aleatoric possibilities of multivocal expression. Raoul Hausmann is perhaps the most significant of the Dadasonosophers and largely because of his instrumental advancements in the techniques of notation. Hausmann in 1918 developed his 'optophonetics' which used typographic variations in size to indicate proportionate variations in pitch and volume. Optophonetics is an open code, of low denotation that nevertheless permits a wide range of imaginative interpretation. It is in current use today with many text-sound composers. Perhaps the greatest scope is evidenced in the sound poems of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) whose phonetic experiments took him into large and small structures alike. His 'Ur Sonata' ranks as one of the longest of all sound poems, whilst 'W' (a single letter on a white card, and performed with the full gamut of pitch, tone, volume and emotional intensity) must be one of the shortest.

de Stijl

Founded by Theo Van Doesburg in 1917 for both the Dutch avant-garde, de Stijl served as a vital outlet for Italian futurism and European Dada. Doesburg's own work appeared under the pseudonym of I. K. Bonset. In 1921 he published three 'letter-sound images' with the following statement accompanying: 'To take away its past it is necessary to renew the alphabet according to its abstract sound-values. This means at the same time the healing of our poetic auditory membranes, which are so weakened, that a long-term phono-gymnastics is necessary!' Mention too should be made of Arthur Petronio the inventor of 'verbophonie' which made attempts to harmonize phonetic rhythms with instrumental sounds into what Petronio termed 'verbalplasticisms'.


Self-styled in the relatively sparse decade of the forties, Lettrisme, as a 'movement', constituted a particularly creative source of linguistic experimentation. Founded by Isadore Isou and Maurice Lemaitre in Paris, Lettrisme offered a full-scale lexical revolution. Their poetic strategy was to be based, like Doesburg's, upon an alphabetic renaissance, and the use of a totally new lexicon. This Lexique des Lettres Nouvelles drawn up by Isou and Lemaitre comprised over 130 entries to be employed as an alphabet of sound in vocal performance. Other members of the group (still flourishing) were Roland Sabatier, J-B. Arkitu and Jean Paul Curtay. Francois Dufrene, a former member, left the original movement to pursue his own 'ultra- lettrism'. Dufrene's work in many ways culminates the phase of second generation sound poetry; it is charactrized by a vocal purity (Dufrene eschewed entirely the attraction and dangers of the tape recorded), an energetic intensity and - in his cri-rhythmes - an intensely somatic base in sub-phonemic units.

The Current Decades

Sound poetry prior to the developments of the 1950s is still largely a word bound thing. For whilst the work of the Dadaists, Futurists and Lettrists served to free the word from its semantic function, redistributing energy from theme and 'message' to matter and contour, it nevertheless persisted in a morphological patterning that still suggested the presence of the word. It is Dufrene's especial achievement to have pushed the limits centripetally and to have entered into the micro particulars of morphology, investigating the full expressive range of predenotative forms: grunts, howls, shrieks, etc. Important too, in this light, is the way meaning persists as a teleology even in zaum. Khlebnikov, for instance, speaks of new meanings achieved through by-passing older forms of meaning, of meanings 'rescued' by 'estrangement'. Ball, too, speaks of exploring the word's 'innermost alchemy'.

So word persists even in the state of its own ex-communication throughout the century. It could be said that what sound poetry, up to the exploitation of the tape recorder, did was to render semantic meaning transcendental, as the destination arrived at by the disautomatization of sound perception. It is this theological contamination, of the meaning, like God, as a hidden presence, that specifies the limits of sound investigation up until the nineteen fifties. With the fifties, however, came the gift of an external revolution: the availability of the tape recorder to sound poets made audio technological advancement of the art form a reality. To summarize the several revolutionary capabilities that tape allowed: the transcendence of the limits of the human body. The tape machine, considered as an extension of human vocalityallowed the poet to move beyond his own expressivity. The body is no longer the ultimate parameter, and voice becomes a point of departure rather than the point of arrival. Realizing also that the tape recorder provides the possibility of a secondary orality predicated upon a graphism (tape, in fact, is but another system of writing where writing is described as any semiotic system of storage) then we can appreciate other immediate advantages: tape liberates composition from the athletic sequentiality of the human body, pieces may be edited, cutting, in effect, becomes the potential compositional basis in which time segments can be arranged and rearranged outside of real time performance. The tape recorder also shares the micro/macro/phonic qualities allowing a more detailed appreciation of the human vocal range. Technological time can be super added to authentic body time to achieve either an accelerated or decelerated experience of voice time. Both time and space are harnessed to become less the controlling and more the manipulable factors of audiophony. There exists then through recourse to the tape recorder as an active compositional tool, the possibility of 'overtaking' speech by the machine. Sound poetry mobilizes a certain technicism to further the cleconstruction of the word; it permits, through deceleration, the granular structure of language to emerge and evidence itself. Phonetic poetry, the non-semantic poetry of the human voice, is more limited in its deconstructional scope, for it accepts the physical limitations of the human speaker as its own limitations. The tape recorder, however, allows speech - for the firsttime in its history -a separation from voice. The advantages of tape began to be realized in the fifties. Henri Chopin (b.1922) makes the decisive break from a phonetic basis to sound poetry and develops his self-styled 'audiopoems'. The audiopoem utilizes microphones of high amplification to capture vocal sounds on the threshold of audition. In this respect Chopin's work can be regarded in the tradition of lexical decomposition outlined above. But the audiopoem constitutes a much more fundamental break with the whole tradition of western poetics.

Chopin's early work (ca. 1955) comprised the decomposition and recomposition of vowels and consonants. Still connected to the word, these pieces can best be described as technological assaults upon the word. The word is slowed down, speeded up and superimposed up to fifty times, whilst additional vocalic texture is provided by a variety of respiratory and buccal effects. Later, Chopin discovered and used the 'micro-particle' as the compositional unit of his work, abandoning the word entirely. This marks the birth of 'poesie sonore', which Chopin distinguishes from 'poesie phonetique'.

Chopin's art is an art entirely dependent on the tape recorder. Chopin's 'vocal micro- particulars' are only realizable through the agency of modern tape technology. It is an irrevocable marriage. His material comprises the full gamut of orally produced phenomena beyond and beneath the atomic limit of the phoneme.

Bernard Heidsieck commenced sound poetry in 1955 with his 'poempartitions' and, since 1966 on, a species he terms 'biopsies'. Both types are rooted in a direct relation to everyday life. Heidsieck sometimes refers to both the biopsies and poem-partitions as 'action' poems (not to be confused with the action poetry of either Steve McCaffery or Robert Filliou). 'Action' since the pieces incorporate the actuality of quotidian soundscapes: subways, streetcars, taxis. Texts utilized are often found and superimposed and involve complex variations in tape speed, volume and editorial juxtaposition. In addition to their value as social comment, Heidsieck sees his sound texts existing within the domain of 'a ritual, ceremonial or event' that assumes an interrogative stance vis a vis our daily wordscapes. The day to day is appropriated and animated to make meaningful 'our mechanical and technocratic age by recapturing mystery and breath'. Heidsieck incorporates the taped-text within the context of live performance and plays off his own live voice against his own voice recorded. It is a positive solipsism that frequently results in a rich textural fabric. Since 1969 Heidsieck has called his tape compositions 'passe-partout' viz. universal pass keys. The passe-partout marks a further development in Heidsieck's central interest: the use of everyday, incidental soundscapes to be isolated and presented in their intrinsic integrity and their electroacoustic modification.

The first text-sound compositions in Sweden were by Öyvind Fahlström in 1961 and 1962, followed in 1964 and 1965 by Bengt Emil Johnson and Lars-Gunnar Bodin. By 1967 virtually all text-sound composition had centered around the Fylkingen Group for Linguistic Arts. Sweden has become the center for technical-acoustic sound poetry; its studios in Stockholm are currently unrivalled, and the resultant pieces display a remarkable degree of sophistication. The main artists are Bengt Emil Johnson, Sten Hanson, Ilmar Laaban, Lars-Gunnar Bodin, Svante Bodin, Bengt af Klintberg (who makes extensive use of local dialect and folklore elements), Ake Hödell and Christer Hennix Lille. Lille was one of the first artists to employ synthetic speech in a texts-ound composition (Still Life, 'Q') in which the synthesizer's computer unit is programmed to produce reshaped oscillations, mutation frequencies and deliberate distortions in syntax and pronunciation. Though it would be misleading to suggest a single'Swedish School' of text-sound composition, it can be said that the general interconnected concern is the exploitation of that interface between art and technology The Bodins, Hanson, Johnson, Laaban, Hodell and Lille all subject texts to electronic modification and transformation.

In Italy, post-futurist developments have been noteworthy. Mimmo Rotella (b. 1918) developed an 'epistaltic' language, anchored in live performance and in the tradition of phonetic plasticization noted in the Lettristes, futurists and Dadaists. Arrigo Lora Totino (b. 1928) however has concerned himself with both live performance and tape manipulation. A man of extreme inventiveness, Totino has developed the Idrornegafono, a rotating horn allowing a projection of the speaker's voice in a 360 degree circle. Totino has used the hydromegaphone in a series of 'liquid poems' in which the voice is sounded through water. Mauricio Nannucci is another Italian sound poet who has devoted much additional energy into organizing manifestations and anthologies of text-sound composition.

In the Netherlands, Herman Damen has developed two sonic genres: verbosony and verbophony. The former deals with vocalized morphemic elements aligned, configurated and concatenated with each other. Verbophony relies upon the electronic treatment of voice in a manner similarto that developed by the Fylkingen Group for Linguistic Arts. Damen's total aim is much more ambitious than the parallel development of two sound genres. Both Verbosony and Verbophony he sees as two elements of Verbal -Plasticism which in itself forms part of Phonography which attempts 'to investigate the possibilities that there are for a relationship between sound and picture, between speech morphemes and letter fragments, between audible and visual rhythms.' Phonography exemplifies one of the central concerns in current sonic poetries: the desire not to harden into a fixist category, the desire to connect with other media and explore practically the margins of aesthetic categories. There has been much activity in Holland since the fifties. In addition to Damen are Paul de Wee (b. 1919), Gerrit Pleiter (who has combined verbosony with radio plays), Gust Gils who has extended investigations in the area of non-semantic destinations through tape manipulation, Tera de Marez Oyens who has used tape delay to great effect in compositions she calls vocaphonies. Greta Monach's work (such as her Automerga) isolates single spoken sounds as abstract, syntagmatic clusters which she terms'words'. The semantic level, whilst never totally obliterated, is never prominent. Unlike Henri Chopin, Monach locates within the tension of conflicting categories to produce compositions that draw upon the familiar and the unfamiliar response. Michael Gibbs is a British poet now living in Holland. A multi-disciplinarian, he has developed a series of chancegenerated sound-texts. This stream of aleatoric composition runs deep through the geneology of sound; it is evident in the Dadaist use of chance and reaches great refinement in the work of Gibbs and the American poet Jackson MacLow.

In Great Britain sound texts started to appear in the earlier sixties. Bob Cobbing, a tireless innovator and publisher, began his sonic explorations as an integral step within concrete poetry. Concrete Sound, as Cobbing terms it, is a 'return to an emphasis on the physical structure of language ... the sign made by the voice ...' Cobbing centralizes several diverse threads in his work. Tantric, Dada, Shaman, intermedia are all present in his solo work and group manifestations (The Konkrete Canticle and, more recently, AbAna.) His texts he terms 'song signals'; they are low clenotational, highly suggestive codes permitting maximum imaginative interpretation. One of Cobbing's lasting contributions to text-sound activity is his revolutionising of what can constitute a 'text'. Cobbing (along with Paula Claire) has frequently abandoned the graphic imprint and received 'song signals' from natural objects: a cross-section of a cabbage, a stone, a piece of rope, the textured surface of bricks, cloth etc. Text can be anything. Paula Claire's contributions to opening up the domain of textuality to conventionally nontextual objects are especially important. Her work investigates the complexities of micro- linguistic elements along analogical lines to nuclear physics, molecular biology, computer miniaturization etc. Since 1973 she has been performing her 'pattern sounds': i.e. sound improvisations on the surface patterns and textures of inanimate objects. Her Codesigns (1976) use photomicropgraphs as texts; they are a stunning synthesis of code and sound. 'To sound these codes,' writes Claire, 'is to approach the miracle of the gestation of language.' Since the mid 1960s she has been working with live improvisation and audience participation: 'I wish to be a catalyst, not a performer to a passive audience.' Claire's work capsulizes and exemplifies several of the concerns of contemporary text-sound composers, especially the synthesis of a highly sophisticated codicity (how more complex and how more simple can you get than a wood knot as a score?) and the desire for a human contextualization of heuristic activities in a shared, communal experience.

A brief survey of European text-sound composition should include mention of several other artists. Brion Gysin, working in the earlier sixties, adapted techniques borrowed from the visual arts to language, and conceived the permutational poem in which semantic units are treated as mobile modules. it might best be described as a syntactic rather than sonic poetry investigating the possibility of verbal liberation (parole in liberta) through exhausting the totality of possible combinations. Gils Wolman, working alongside Dufrene in the 1950s, gave sound poetry the megapneumes. With an intensely physical anchoring in the potential of the human vocal- respiratory system, Wolman pursued language back beyond the threshold of the word and letter to breath, energy and emotion. The form bears comparison with Olson's statements on 'the laws and particularities of breath' as outlined in his essay on projective verse, for the megapneume and Dufrene's crirhythmes demonstrate the full implication of a pneumatic centered communication.

Austria's sound poet par excellence is Ernst Jandl, the principle practitioner of phonetic poetry. Jandl's pieces employ processes of word fragmentation and recomposition to alter meanings by elaborate structural puns. Germany's major exponents are Gerhard Rhum and Frans Mon; in Yugoslavia Katalinal-aclik, and in Czechoslovakia Ladislav Novak.

Sound poetry has been a later development in North America and has developed in part from a very different background. Practitioners in Canada and the United States have, in general, pursued a non-specialist line, there has occurred much more of a horizontal integration of a sonic art into more conventional concerns. Jackson MacLow, in New York, introduced systematic chance operations, simultaneities and assymetries and ranks as one of the most seminal influences on the continent. His performed work is rich and varied; many are complex realizations of written chance generated structures, much else is a complex interweave of multiple voice and tape. MacLow has been seminal in relocating poetry in the alternative domain of programme and procedure; meanings are not imposed but rather auto-compose themselves and syntactic and phonemic structures are selfdetermined. In the work of Jerome Rothenberg we find the highly significant fusion of ethnopoetry and modernity. Rothenberg, conceptor of total translation, has arrived at a new performative based very largely on translative methods. A highly important researcher into primitive poetries, Rothenberg offers a diachronic alternative to the normally accepted 'history' of poetry. His is an oral hybrid thatfuses avant-gardist concerns (decomposition at the semantic level, repositioning of language within the domain of the body etc.) with tribal oralities. His translations, with Frank Mitchell, of the Senecan 'Horse Songs'are historically unlocateable. Neither primitive nor modern, they hang between chronologies as their own time-defying events. Charlie Morrow works closely with Rothenberg and has developed his art towards the Shamanic. Like so many other contemporary sound artists, Morrow directs his work towards audience participation and intimate settings. He has researched cross-species communication, experimented with breath chants, synchronized mass breathings ('breathe- ins'), sound healing, and vision inducing chanting. John Giorno, a sometime collaborator with Gysin and William Burroughs, is a more syntactically based composer. His works tend to use found material (cf. Heidsieck) which he structures into double repetition patterns textually reinforced and modified by multi-track tape recorder. On the West Coast Michael McClure developed, in the sixties, his beast language which alternated structurally within more syntactically conventional sections. A powerful performer, McClure's beast tantras search for the nexus between biological code and cortical language. Charles Amirkhanian is perhaps the best-known text-sound practitioner currently working in America. His work gives prominence to textual fragmentation by way of rhythmic patterning and configu rations. Larry Wendt is another West Coast artist who, along with Stephen Ruppenthal, registers as possibly the best electroacoustic text-sound composer in the country

In Canada, things start not with Bill Bissett or bpNichol, but with Montreal Automatiste Claude Gauvreau. Gauvreau, working in the 40s, made structural modifications to French Surrealist ideas, especially the diminishment of pictorial image in favour of what he terms 'rhythmic images'. Gauvreau's work, which bears comparison to Artaud and the Dadaists, is theoretically hermetic - a non-semantic language of pure sound which, however, never dominates in any one text. Rather Gauvreau exploits the tension between familiar and unfamiliar linguistic experiences, thrusting the listener into disturbingly volatile states of alternate comprehension and uncomprehension. Gauvreau's influence, however, has never extended outside Quebec (his work, for instance, was a seminal influence of Raoul Duguay) and Anglophone sound poetry does not surface until the early sixties in the work of bpNichol and Bill Bissett. Bissett and Nichol were both familiar with the work of Michael McClure, but it seems that European influence did not occur until well into the sixties. For Bissett, it was the realization that his visual, typographic experimentations could be sounded that led to his first attempts at isolating sound. Nichol's work similarly started with a realization about the syntactic, permutational play of his early concrete poetry. It is live performance and a relatively crude chant-based structure that informs both Bissett's and Nichol's early work. Both of them too, have been significant in pushing poetic composition into the communal domain. For Bissett it was his work with the Mandan Massacre and for Nichol early collaborations with Steve McCaffery and D.W. Harris that indicated the teleology of the poem as a communal product and a collective experience. In 1970 Nichol, McCaffery (after solo and duo sound performances) joined cause with Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera to form the first sound-poetry ensemble, The Four Horsemen. Their work is very much an experiment in collective communication, the sensing of chaning biological-emotional states which guide the shifts and structural decisions in their highly improvisatory performances. Recently a second sound poetry ensemble has emerged: Owen Sound (Steve Smith, David Penhale, Richard Truhlar and Michael Dean). In both Owen Sound and The Four Horsemen an intermedia experience is generated on the liminal zones of theatre, music and poetry.

In Montreal, a similarly collective encleavour has emerged in the work of the Vehicule artists: Stephen Morrissey and Pat Walsh's Cold Mountain Revue; Richard Sommer, Andre Farkas, Ken Norris, Tom Konyves and Claudia Lapp. There has been comparatively little investigation into the technological treatment of voice in Canada. In general, a preference for live performance in group structures has developed as the major single feature. However, Sean O'Huigin and Steve McCaffery have collaborated (together and independently) with electronic composer Ann Southam to produce text-sound compositions of high sophistication: synthesized speech, various speeds, splicings and superimpositions have all been investigated by O'Huigin and McCaffery.

Prior to this Nichol had investigated electroacoustic effects (largely echo and reverb) on his album Motherlove. However, Nichol's interest has never developed beyond this one, isolated instance. In conclusion, it should be said, that this Introduction is intended to be no more than a survey of current concerns against a background that is still being 'invented'. Sound Poetry is marked as much by its differences as its similarities. It is, above all, a practice of freedom. Most artists have entered the domain feeling consciously the current inadequacy of language; that need to test all categories, confront the fixist and offer both the problems and solutions of new possibilities. In many poets it has led to a renaissance in awareness; to an acknowledgement of roots much more primitive and universal than the diachronic highpoints of Futurism and Dada. In many others it has led to an open future, to a language without words and hence to a history without history.

Julia Kristeva has written of literary practice as being 'the exploration and discovery of the possibilities of language as an activity which frees man from given linguistic networks'. Sound Poetry is best described as what sound poets do (or as I once answered 'it's a new way to blow out candles'); it thus takes its place in the larger struggle against all forms of preconditioning.

Bring back the future.

Toronto, August 1978

above copied from:

Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau: The Desiring House, Jaleh Mansoor


From 1919 until a night in early October 1937, when Allied bombing destroyed the Merzbau, Kurt Schwitters continuously composed and manipulated this assemblage [Fig. 1]. The project, variously categorized as an architectural undertaking,1 as “Schwitters’ most important collage project,”2 or as a performatively elaborated sculptural program,3 entailed the ceaseless manipulation of the artist’s Hanover studio. Stretching vertically and horizontally to adjacent rooms, it eventually resulted in an all-encompassing environment. The internal space was transformed by the aggregation of found materials, objects, and sculptural forms affixed to the architectural structure. Alternately, Schwitters cut into and removed portions of the material pile-up he had amassed, as well as pieces of the architecture to which they were connected. He finally cut4 through the ceiling and floor to extend his work outside the original armature of the building. The expanse of Merzbau, developing and changing over a period of eight years, never cohered as a unified, architectural space or sculptural object. It came to formation, rather, as the site of Schwitters’ practice of continuous, and non-coded, production and destruction. Merzbau emerged as a function of a practice divested of either productive or deconstructive aims.

The Merzbau involved two dimensions. The first dimension consisted of a crafted architectural structure made of plaster and wood, and built up along multiple, irregular axes. The second consisted of an inner core, a formless accretion of discarded random objects and fragments. The interior and the shell-like enclosure connected to one another through labyrinthine, miniature tunnels or voids, which doubled as spaces for the display of objects. Schwitters used these spaces to present other assemblages or collections of things taken out of everyday circulation. Friends frequently noted that a possession was missing, only to visit Schwitters and find the absent item exhibited in a grotto. Hannah Hoch worried over a missing key and later found it part of a sculpture; Mies van der Rohe noted that Schwitters filched a drawing pencil and placed it in one of the caves. Because Merzbau was a continuous project altered daily, the small apertures were often sliced out of a larger mass, or covered over and buried under the agglomeration of objects, wood or plaster. The Dadaist Hans Richter generously saw Merzbau as a living, daily changing document on Schwitters and his friends.5 After visiting Hanover in 1928, Richter wrote

All the little holes and cavities that we [avant-garde artists] had formerly occupied by proxy were no longer to be seen. ‘They are deep down inside,’ Schwitters explained. They were concealed by the monstrous growth of the column, covered by other sculptural excrescence, new people, new shapes, colors, and details.6

Richter’s account underscores the most striking dimension of Merzbau: the intersection of material accretion—including bodily, industrial, and artisinal production—with the endless flux of Schwitters’ process. The artist exteriorized parts of his own body and incorporated them into the tunnels or architectural shell. He placed hair, nail parings and his own urine in small containers throughout the project. Rendered impersonal, these bodily remains and refuse proceed along a circuit beginning from the anthropomorphic armature of the artist’s body, through various containers and objects, and then into the crevices of the architectural armature. In effect, Merzbau obviates the traditional distinctions between interior and exterior. Hans Richter articulates the tension between pneumatic and cavity-like (in)form as follows: “He explained it to me and I saw the whole thing as an aggregate of hollow space, a structure of concave and convex forms which hollowed and inflated the whole sculpture.”7 In other words, the de-territorialized material aggregate, cut off from one site, is put into circulation, and re-territorialized in other spaces. The process of cutting allows objects and detritus to enter new relations and encounters, to connect to other spaces and materials. Merzbau hardly presents a formal object—identifiable and able to be categorized as sculpture or architecture. Instead, we find a ceaseless flow of material aggregation and the habitual production of its own production. It never cohered as a finished product, a bounded and completed thing. While it would appear that the very definition of Merzbau is at stake (is it sculpture, architecture, collage, design?), it becomes clear that its hybridity exceeds any kind of classification. Any focus on the object, its form, structure, or definition must cede to the primacy of process in Schwitters’ practice. The only principle to which the project adheres is that of continuous fluid production, a dynamic additive and subtractive process of connecting and cutting. Schwitters insisted on the Merzbau’s sole structural condition as one of flux: “It is unfinished out of principle.”8

Of course this “principle” is a non-principle. A law delineates a term around which other terms cohere. A “principle” produces a code, a master key by which a set of objects or concepts may be understood. Yet the Merzbau presents, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari set forth in “Balance Sheet Program for Desiring Machines,”9 in which evaluate the operational economy of the avant-garde movement Dada, a “set of pure singularities,” objects and practices that do not have a common denominator, whose elements are bound together by the absence of a system. The Merzbau’s logic is thus “that of a functioning and not that of interpretation.”10 The assemblage-work, perpetually unfinished, paradoxically figures forth the production of the process of production, which ceaselessly changes its own rules as it develops in practice. As such, a single interpretive key is rendered obsolete the moment it seems viable; it is exceeded the very moment it emerges because its object transforms, raising new questions opening onto new interpretations. As the “work” is regenerated, the parameters of the code dynamically change. The only thread binding the organization of the work is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as “the production of desire”—endlessly productive of particular flows and various configurations of materials, a problem to which I will return.


Dada artists such as George Grosz and Richard Huelsenbeck took painting, sculpture, collage, and modernist poetry—in a word, “Modernism”—at its word. They insisted that any, however violated, adherence to the formal codes salient to those practices necessarily signified an allegiance to Western bourgeois discourses, politics, and values. As such, Schwitters’ eccentric deployment and manipulation of Modernist pictorial codes, such as the relationship between line and color, entailed an inevitable rejection from “club Dada.”

When Richter interceded on his behalf, so that Schwitters could participate in Dada exhibits, manifestations, performances, or general carousing, Huelsenbeck refused any invitation, stating that he could not stand Schwitters’ “bourgeois face.”11 “He was a very unruly and intolerant fellow, he was a genius in a frock coat. We called him the abstract Spitzweg, the Kaspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist revolution.”12 This characterization alone bears witness to his contemporaries’ inability to comprehend the heterogeneous, seemingly eclectic productions that Schwitters presented, his adherence to the means and methods central to beaux arts practices (easel, paint, brush), and his simultaneous willful perversion of the codes defining those practices.

Schwitters responded to Huelsenbeck’s rebuff by setting up his own operation in Hanover under the name Merz, which he derived from the word “Kommerzbank.”13 For his journal Merz, issue L, from 1919, in a short piece entitled “Merzmalerie,” Schwitters said that

Merz pictures are abstract works of art. The word Merz essentially denotes the combination of all conceivable materials, and in principle the equal evaluation of all materials. Merzmalerie [Merz painting] makes use not only of paint and canvas, brushes and palette, but of all materials perceptible to the eye and of all available implements. It is unimportant if the material was already formed for some other purpose. The artist creates through the distribution of materials.14

While Schwitters never exchanged the paint, canvas, or brush for photography or the readymade, or any other form related to modernity, industrialization, and mass reception (forms with which other avant-gardists were struggling), he nonetheless stripped those traditional tools of their purity and integrity. By crossing them with the very materials and processes they were meant to transcend—the organic, the industrial—he inaugurates a practice unbounded by object category or classification, what Deleuze would identify as a kind of “anorganic vitalism.”15 What is at stake is a particular self-driven economy of work indifferent to its product. This is already evident in Schwitters’s collage work of the early and mid teens, the Merzbilder. To think of the Merzbau in terms of architecture would shift the focus onto questions of architectural specificity and its limits, thereby obscuring the problem at hand: the centrality of a process undetermined by ends, objects or products. A comparison of the economy driving Schwitters’s collage production to that of Picasso’s cubist collage presents the problem more clearly.

“I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.” In a 1924 issue of Merz, entitled G, Schwitters discussed poetry and painting together:

The end pursued by poetry is pursued, logically, by Dadaist painters who, in their pictures, evaluate object against object by sticking or nailing them down side by side. Things may be evaluated in this way rather than they are when signified by words.

Here, the dyadic and vertical relationship between the material signifier and the signified is exchanged for a laterally oriented cutting and dividing of a particular signifying chain in conjunction with equally horizontal and incommensurable chains. In other words, in Schwitter’s system, poetry’s logical conclusion is painting. And, in a step counter to either Modernism or Dadaism,16 painting’s logical conclusion is the process of assemblage: the cutting, nailing and sticking together of objects. Language (poetry) and matter (the pictorial surface and paint) become mutually interchangeable as though they shared a common denominator otherwise hidden from aesthetic understanding. The specificity or integrity of any one medium is exchanged for the mutable space of production, the production of production itself. Language and materiality meet on another register: an imminent fabric of relations determined by cutting and connecting, production and passage. Each disciplinary practice (painting, poetry, labor) is cut, redirected and woven together along the common circuit of process: the nailing and affixing that cuts a material (including language in its material vocal and textual aggregation) and assure its flow and connection to an other material or language.

A question nevertheless remains. If Schwitters insists on transverse or transfinite connections and interruptions in a field of composition and decomposition, where do Schwitters’ practices meet? How can one, looking back on Merz, trace the generative logic or motivation, the gravity of its build-up of work?

In a short essay entitled “Balance Sheet—Program for Desiring-machines,” (1977), addended to the 1997 French edition of Anti-Oedipe,17 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau,18 as “the desiring house, the house machine of Kurt Schwitters which sabotages and destroys itself, where its constructions and the beginning of its destruction are indistinguishable.”19 The word “house” introduces less a sense of architectural structure than of a site of specialized production, a process, indicated by its slippage into the word “machine.” For Deleuze and Guattari, the compositional, anti-structural set of relations, cuts and connections enacted by Merz, constitute it as a desiring-machine. For the field that links objects, materials, and processes is not the coordinates of a coherent structure, but rather the aleatory encounter between materials and processes. The (dis) connective tissue itself, as a set of ruptured and re-connected points of intersection constitute the machinic assemblage. This machine, in turn, produces and is produced by affiliations between scraps and residua, or chance relations between elements that are ultimately distinct. It is “the un-connective connection of autonomous structures…that make it possible to define desiring-machines as the presence of such chance relations within the machine itself.”20 In other words, the machine is the space of excessive process, the production of production producing normative, hegemonic forms of production differently. I set the “Balance Sheet Program for Desiring Machines” into play throughout the present essay for its singular capacity to describe the Merzbau’s operative mode. It presents a chance to rethink an artist’s project as performance and practice—a set of activities irreducible to any object status answerable to art historical evaluations, which are founded on the seeming stability of the object.


In an account of living and working in the various convergent and divergent Dada circles from 1917 to the 1930’s, Hans Richter says that on his first meeting with Kurt Schwitters, the artist approached him with the abrupt declaration: “I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.”21 This statement struck Richter and his cohorts Baader, Hausmann and Tzara, as “new and attractive.” Painting and nailing seemed radically disproportionate in the logic of any heretofore-established artistic combinatory system. For nailing, in effect, would correspond to the social space of labor, while painting in this moment aspired to transcend that social-economic world. Richter goes on to state, incredulously, “he even wanted to integrate the machine into art, along with kitsch, chair legs, singing and whispering,”22 reiterating the degree to which Schwitters’ process and use of materials effaced painting’s categorical boundaries.

This productive strategy, “I nail my pictures together,” becomes the procedural matrix of Schwitters’ own self-description and artistic self-definition. Schwitter’s well-known “assemblage” works, for example, collect pieces of everyday detritus, which are affixed to the surface. Das Kreisen [Revolving], (1919) [Fig. 2] presents tin cans, string, wood, and trash situated over a painted blue field. Here, the materials and their structural configuration are one and the same. Trash does not constitute the contents of an otherwise traditional or mimetic depiction, nor does it undergo a metamorphosis from trash to find itself born anew on the other side of the frame as Art. Rather, it remains in a state of material buildup on the physical surface of the painted field. At the same time, trash functions in contiguity to formal components: line, color, etc. In lieu of stretched canvas, the surface is a piece of industrial burlap stuck to wood and frayed at the edges. Pieces of garbage constitute contour, border, figure, and ground simultaneously. A wooden band, a broken barrel part, assumes the role of drawing, as it seems to delimit painterly modeling, chiaroscuro, and local color. Nevertheless, the relation between object and drawing remains unmotivated; contour does not enclose color. The materials do not represent themselves iconographically; instead, they are posited on the surface as elements for the iteration of formal attributes.23 Rather than depicting or signifying a body in space, one element (the fragment that stands alternately for color or for line) literally becomes material. Everyday materiality at once operates as, and slowly replaces, compositional elements. Moreover, the toss-away elements that support the composition also spill over onto the wood frame. The frame—usually guarantor of aesthetic autonomy—is here compromised by bits and pieces of tin, string, and stuff, all of which appear as much a part of the virtual space of the composition as the actual space of the outside world.

Collage pieces such as Das Kreisen or Das Arbeiterbild [The Worker Picture], (1919) [Fig. 3] appear, at first glance, to represent a contraption, a set of cogwheels or cylinders. Yet the assemblage’s machinic dimension figures more from the particular productive mode, the process of making, rather than an iconographic or representational program. Schwitters’ Merz work presents us with a becoming machine of the work of art. Now this becoming machine has nothing to do with the representation of a machine and even less with any conventional understanding of the machine as tool, as industrial or electronic gadget. The assemblage-as-machine entails a cutting and connecting of everyday trash, everyday materiality, rather than a representational or referential relation to the outside world. In other words, that outside—through the inclusion of its many mute fragments and physical vestiges—is internalized into the pictorial field rather than depicted or symbolized as an absent object.

The machinic painters stressed the following: they did not paint machines as substitutes for still lives or nudes. The machine is not a represented object. The aim is to introduce an element of machine that combines with something else on the full body of the canvas, with the result that it is precisely the ensemble that is the desiring-machine.24

The representational, the very conditions of representability, and the regime of the visual code so carefully investigated in Cubist collage cede to procedural excess. The endless processing of materiality replaces a representational code based on negation or absence.


Deleuze and Guattari are careful to disentangle this operational mode called the desiring-machine from any crude analogy to a mechanical gadget, an industrial apparatus, or an electronic device. They also caution against an analogy to psychoanalytically informed notions of desire (as Oedipally organized). Rather, the authors argue that the desiring-machine is a libidinal and economic drive toward relationships, production, and productive relations or flows. “Desiring-machines cannot be equated with the adaptation of real machines, or to a symbolical process, nor can they be reduced to dreams of fantastic machines operating in the imaginary.”25 They cannot be equated with projective modes (a fantasy), because the desiring-machine necessarily involves the force of production.26

The desiring-machines’ shift from the register of consumption (of an object, a fantasy) to production, desiring production, requires a rethinking of the relation between man and “machine,” just as it had entailed a rethinking of the relationship between artist and medium. The object is not to compare, to make equivalent or to contrast man and machine, but rather to require of them an encounter. This encounter reveals the way in which they enter relations with one another constituted by, and constitutive of, larger libidinal and social arrangements. In other words, the subject combines with a tool or a fantasy in an assemblage positioned within a larger arrangement or regime (a techno-social machine) productive of subjects, of tools (conventional machines) and phantasmic projections. Guattari explains elsewhere that subjectivities “enter into machines”; specific historical regimes and their concomitant assemblage of machinic and productive arrangements, which are characterized by circuits and relays of power, knowledge and self-reference, “subjectivize” the individual in particular ways.27 These circuits, in turn, bear upon the subject’s phantasmic apparatus.

As such, the desiring-machine, in counter-distinction to the techno-social machine, may be defined as the perverse, and creatively off-course, introjection and subsequent manipulation of that hegemonic techno-social machine. Schwitters deploys what Dadaists would refer to as the hegemonic machine of bourgeois Modernist painting; yet he perversely manipulates the very forces of production within that artistic practice. This manipulation, in turn, is productive of another arrangement of circuits, materials, and ideas. “It is from this perspective that there is not only a perverse use or adaptation of a technical social machine, but the construction of a desiring-machine within the technical social machine.”28 Thus Deleuze and Guattari introduce the way in which the desiring-machine enacts an inside-outside fold of a prevailing regime. The self internalizes the dominant regime, the technical-social machine in question, to the extent that it produces him. Nevertheless, she or he may do so incorrectly. She may redirect the flow and operational mode of the machine and so elaborate a desiring-machine within the introjected machine. Moreover, she may externalize this internally developed machine in another set of assemblages, another specific desiring-machine. Machines, incessantly whirring, constantly active, produce machines that produce other machines in an infinite regress/progress of the production of production. Shcwitters remains within Modernist, medium-bound practices only to the extent that he practices them differently, and thereby inaugurates another kind of practice.

Thus the machine that Deleuze and Guattari define has nothing to do with the technological apparatus of the industrial age, nor the electronic mechanism; it is neither the technologically engineered appliance nor the utilitarian tool. A machine is that which organizes, directs, and interrupts the continuous field of materiality. The machine is a system that conducts the material flow by rendering its instances contiguous at times, breaking it from itself in order to reconnect it to other material flows. As such, the machine does not function as a figure, a unified and bounded identity, over a material ground. “These breaks should in no way be considered separate from reality.” Rather, hylè (or material flow) and machine operate in tandem as inextricably linked.

Materiality surfaces and functions along the machinic armature, which it reciprocally effects; hylè cuts into the machine even as the machine cuts into it. As a system that breaks and directs the matter that in turn molds it, the machine is not incommensurable with the organic. Indeed the mutual force of each obviates the standard differentiation between organic and artificial/synthetic, body and machine. On a larger register, Deleuze and Guattari’s enfolding of machine/material flow as contiguous and continuous contests the set of binaries inherited from Western metaphysics between form and matter, idea and material, system and matrix. That which forms (machine), and that which is formed (hylè), are continuous with one another.

The anthropomorphic body is itself already a machine. It processes the endless flux, the associative flow. The mouth will cut speech, air, milk (food). Likewise, it will afford the conditions of possibility of that material passage; it provides a set of thresholds and surfaces that conduct the passage of matter, of stuff. The anthropomorphic body, then, is both armature, machinic system, and material flow. The body is one site among many where the machine and the endless anorganic vitalism of surfaces and flows converge.

Flow and rupture necessitate and enable one another on a common register: process. This arrangement and organization of process “the law of the production of production. Everywhere there are breaks-flows out of which desire wells up, thereby constituting its productivity and continually grafting the process of production onto the product.”29 The resultant object of production thus bears the imprint of its making and in turn becomes another point along the circuit of production. The object becomes a machine itself as well as a material aggregate testifying to process and becoming part of another process: the producing assemblage. The law of the production of production, then, is predicated upon points of intersection between disparate codes that produce syntheses, which in turn produce the conditions of possibility for subsequent productive flows. “Connect-I-cut-I-connect…” Or, “I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.”

Merz is extracted from Kommerz, Kommerzbank. The desiring-machine of Merz, already inscribed in “komerz” or the techno-social machine of capitalism, is productive of objects that give way to further process and production. As such, Merz opens onto a set of material processes always already operative. Yet it redirects them. Schwitters manages to twist the bourgeois dialectic between private and public sphere. The slices and openings perform on a microcosmic level what the avant-garde30 had attempted on large scale: the transformation of collective life through the radical interpenetration of the street and the interior, of individual private existence and public collective experience.

The eerie labyrinthine and subterranean sexuality operative in Merzbau in the investiture of space with bodily flows and byproducts, and the inclusion of an object deriving from the Other, surfaces as a set of practices. Rather than a reference point, a static problem, or a thematic presence, sexuality becomes a productive force, endlessly productive of production.31 “There is no sexual symbolism, and sexuality does not designate another economy, another politics, but rather the libidinal unconscious of political economy as such.”32 As such, it entwines with and redirects economic interest.

Although Merzbau appears to grow in an organic manner, its organicity cannot be interchanged or understood as an organic, whole body. For its organizational strategy, like the organization of the desiring-machine, and like the “full body of society,” depends upon the contiguity of incommensurable elements bound together by value of a social and procedural economy.

The Dada desiring-machine again stands at the juncture between individual and unconscious desire and its entwinement with social-political structure. The challenge that it poses derives from its challenge to the Oedipal mode—the predominant structure put in place in the techno-social machine—of organizing the self. Dada,

puts desire in contact with a libidinal world of connections and breaks, flows and schizes that constitute a world where each thing becomes a component of the motor of desire, of a “lubric wheelwork,” crossing, mixing, overturning structures and animal, mineral, vegetable, juvenile, social.33

This crossing, intersecting and overturning across a lateral field of desire, production and social interaction challenges the vertical, projective plane of Oedipality—the law, the nom du père. Desiring-machines express the non-Oedipal life of the unconscious. If Oedipus is the retroactively inscribed screen, the gadget or fantasy, then the desiring-machine is, to quote Francis Picabia, “the daughter born without a mother.”34 What defines the desiring-machines, in the absence of a vertically organized relationship to the law and the father (the parental hierarchy), “is precisely their capacity for an unlimited number of connections, in every sense and in all directions. They possess two characteristics or powers: the power of continuum and the power of rupture.”35 The notion that the machine is voided of a cerebral father, linking it to a fixed law, allows it to open onto a collective, a “full body” or body politic.36


Recall the definition of the desiring-machine, where “everywhere there are breaks-flows out of which desire wells up, thereby constituting its productivity and continually grafting the process of production onto the product.” 37 The machine and the fluid passage of materiality operate along an endless chain of continuous production. The resultant “object” of production thus bears the imprint of its making and in turn becomes another point along the circuit of production. The object becomes a machine itself as well as a material aggregate testifying to process and becoming part of another process anew: the producing assemblage. After the Nazis bombed it in 1937, Schwitters built a second Merzbau in Norway, and then a third when he moved to England, where he died. The final object (the architectural work) was of little consequence. Rather, the function of connecting and cutting material, of continuous production, is what mattered.

Jaleh Mansoor is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at Columbia University. Her dissertation is on the significance of the readymade for Fifties abstract painting in Italy, France, and America.

John Elderfield, the authority on Schwitter’s work, maintains this position in Kurt Schwitters (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985).
See Dorothea Dietrich, The Collages of Kurt Schwitters: Tradition and Innovation. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 164.
See the chapter entitled “Lost in Space: Duchamp's 1938 Installation,” in Thomas James Demos, "Duchamp homeless? The avant-garde and post-nationalism (Marcel
Duchamp)" (Ph.D. diss., New York: Columbia University, 2000).
In many ways, Schwitters’ Merzbau provides an interesting predecessor to Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1960’s anti-architectural work. However, it is critical to note the differences in their practices. In Schwitters’ Merzbau, cutting and building-up are equally critical operations, where for Matta-Clark the process of cutting or destruction is of primary importance.
Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art, Trans. David Britt. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965), 152.
Cited in Dietrich, 188.
Richter, 152.
Cited in Dietrich, 166.
Deleuze and Guattari, “Balance Sheet—Program for Desiring-machines” in Semiotexte Vol. 2, No.3 (1977), 117-135.
Ibid, 125.
Richter, 138. “Instead of being grateful to this man for the happiness he gave to us and for all of his unregarded objects, to the inexhaustible wit he applied to the juxtaposition of tram-tickets, nail-files, cheese paper and faces, for his many poems, stories and plays in which the loftiest plays went hand in hand with non-sense, we allowed him to die in poverty and exile.” Work on Kurt Schwitters involves itself with the standard art historical appraisal that he represents a moment of anti-modernism, a return to tradition (Dietrich), or even an instance of reactionary anti-modernism within the ranks of the avant-garde (T.J. Demos’s recent dissertation chapter entitled “Lost in Space: Duchamp’s 1938 Installation”).
Huelsenbeck quoted in Dorothea Dietrich, 132.
One could develop the potentially productive relationship between Schwitter’s medium-less, chaotic, and incessant activity and Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of Capitalism and schizophrenia, perhaps linked through Schwitter’s willful inscription of his own understanding of “Kommerz” and production circuits.
Cited in Elderfield, 44.
This term is borrowed from Gilles Deleuze, and indicates those points where the traditional dualisms between organic and synthetic, organic and machinic, no longer operate since they all are on a continuous material chain (hylè). This idea is a major theme throughout Milles Plateaux, but is discussed more specifically in “An Unrecognized Precursor to Heidegger: Alfred Jarry.” Essays Critical and Clinical. Trans. Daniel Smith and Michael Greco (Minnesota: U of Minneapolis Press), 91-99.
The Dadaists’ contempt and rejection of painting is well known. They would not accept the Dadaist object as a particular strand of painterly practice. In other words, while many Dada artists rejected painting, Schwitters developed another understanding of painting’s logic.
Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipe: capitalisme et schizophrénie. The essay is translated from the French for Semiotexte Vol. 2, No.3 (1977), 117-135.

Ibid, 129.
Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art, Trans. David Britt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965), 137.
Ibid, 152.
These could be compared to Picasso’s line works in his proto-cubist production, such as the Dryad or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Yet the cubist separation and emancipation of line from color is radicalized in Schwitter’s assemblages to open onto the material flux of the world beyond the frame.
Deleuze and Guattari, “Balance Sheet--Program for Desiring-machines,” 121. Emphasis mine.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Balance Sheet--Program for Desiring-machines,” 117.
Ibid. With the projective machine, as well as the imaginary, “one witnesses the conversion of an element of production into a mechanism of individual consumption (psychic consumption and psychoanalytic breast-feeding).”
Félix Guattari. “Regimes, Pathways, Subjects.” Incorporations. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds. (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 16-35.
Ibid, 119.
Ibid, 36-37.
The avant-garde project hinged on the dissolution of boundaries between interior and exterior, private and public, unconscious and social collectivity. Russian Constructivism attempted to mobilize collectivity through the transformation of the art object in the utilitarian object. Surrealism attempted Socialist revolution through the emancipation of the unconscious and desire.
This has nothing to do with an anthropomorphic and anthrobiological mode of reproduction.
Ibid, 133.
Ibid, 123.
Ibid, 120. The authors state “It takes a lot of good will to believe, along with René Girard, that paternalism alone is enough to lead us out of Oedipus, and that mimetic rivalry is really the complex’s Other. Psychoanalysis has never ceased doing just that: fragmenting Oedipus or multiplying it, sublimating it, making it boundless, elevating it to the level of the signifier. The symbolic Oedipus does not help us escape…even if we are told that it has nothing to do with mommy-daddy and is the signifier…Psychoanalysis hold a resentment toward desire in this tyranny and bureaucracy.” 120-121.
Ibid, 121.
Anti-Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia, translated from the French by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane ; preface by Michel Foucault (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 36-37.

above copied from:


Considerations of a term and its public use
(September 2006)

This essay was commissioned for a book dedicated to Prof. Gunther Mayer on his 70th birthday. A highly respected academic, musicologist and a supporter of avant garde and adventurous music, Gunther always trod a quietly dissonant path through the political complexities of the old German Democratic Republic. I should add that my take on these matters is not one he would easily endorse, though I know he appreciates the central argument which, like his own thinking moves obliquely against the orthodoxies of current scholarship.


In hot pursuit of the Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote runs straight over the edge of a precipice. He's so fixated on his forward goal that he fails to notice there is no longer any ground underneath his feet. Twenty metres out, he makes the fatal error of looking down and gravity takes care of the rest. In this essay, I want to suggest that something very loosely analogous happened to art in the first half of the last century. For the avant gardes, there was nothing underfoot after about 1915 – but it wasn't until the mid 1950's that the realisation – and the disorientating consequences – of that fact kicked in. Then, art became weightless and any sense of forward motion disappeared.

I will argue in this brief notice that at the moment it went into reverse, art both validated and made meaningless the idea of an avant garde.


1. Art and anti-art.

Art as currently understood is neither essential nor timeless. References to 'primitive art,' 'medieval art' or 'the art of ancient Greece' create confusion by conflating fundamentally different and functionally incommensurate social practices1. In our own time, vernacular understanding of what art is has evolved out of the category of Fine Art, coined in the eighteenth century to claim an elevated status for specific artisanal practices as a connected sphere of autonomous cultural production. Two hundred and fifty years later, this status is about the only thing that survives intact, every other original attribute assigned to the term having been incrementally rejected, the whole finally succumbing to a hail of manifestos, experiments, outrages and innovation in the early part of the twentieth century. In spite of their re-integrative ambitions, it was the historic function of the early twentieth century avant gardes to complete the redefinition and consequent emancipation of art consciously begun in the early eighteenth century, and to free it from every involuntary alliance and restraint. We have been circling around the consequences ever since.

It was Dada, the most radical and ambitious of all the movements, that finally put the new concept of art itself to the question2. But in spite, or maybe because, of its best efforts (since a lever can never raise its own fulcrum), the established status of art as a privileged mode of communication has survived intact - and we the public, the critics, and all our institutions, continue to accept the old eighteenth century creed that art is not merely a functional aspect of the life of a social group or community but is a self-reflexive, autonomous, discourse, answerable ultimately only to itself.

But autonomy tends to separation. And if art wants separation it must expect incomprehension. If it really wants to be reunited with life, it would have to accept that it would cease to be 'art.'

To be free, as art, it must accept its alienation; to be free of art, it must dissolve itself and learn to serve. But whom? And how?

II. The avant garde.

Recently minted, the qualifier avant garde has served various offices: first military, then political, then literary - as applied to a group of writers in mid-eighteenth century France who mixed political and artistic radicalism. It was extended in the last quarter of the eighteenth century to writers without political inclinations who, in pursuit of the logic of their own autonomy - and finding themselves increasingly disconnected from the established institutions of art - responded by insisting that they could be the only proper arbiters of what art could, or should, be, concluding that it should be more like a science: investigative, experimental, permanently moving forward; not a servant to the market but an independent actor pursuing the logic of its own necessity. As a movement towards the liberation of form this avant garde, though culturally embattled, remained - in general - socially disengaged. It was the historical avant gardes that followed - in particular Constructivism, Russian and Italian Futurism, and Dada - which, though owing a huge debt to l'art pour l'art and the experimental model, were driven not by an urge to abandon the world for formal purity but rather urgently to change it through an aggressive programme of demands that art be revolutionised, redefined, and brought back into the weave of quotidian life. As means, they proposed various combinations of new and old media - performance, political engagement and metaphysics - agreeing only that the past had to be torn up and the cultural clock reset to zero. All failed in their specific missions, but together they succeeded in their attack on the academy. In the space of little more than a decade, they had challenged every convention, rule and aesthetic supposition they could identify. Without agreed political affiliation, they nonetheless held in common a political desire to look beyond the artwork and towards the role of art in the construction of a new world. In the ensuing ferment, movements proliferated and permanent revolution became the public way of art. I say art; I mean of course the latest, the newest, the art which claimed to be the real art, the revolutionary art that would relegate yesterday's revolutionaries either to the museum or the dustbin. Such became the image of the phantom restless phalanx of the avant garde: always on the move, always locked into the new, always a step ahead. Deep in this model is an unquestioned teleology - a confident acceptance of direction and future. Avant garde is a concept inseparable from the idea of progress.

Where should one look for an avant garde when the idea of progress is no longer credited; when any identifiable garde has fractured into a million shards and there is no linear forward march to be in the vanguard of?

More than forty years ago this ceased to be a rhetorical question.

III. Continuity and discontinuity. Artist's relations to their history.

As already noted, before they were 'Arts,' painting and music were skills and crafts, working occupations whose practitioners were paid to produce as artisans - usually to very explicit order. Art connoted varieties of skill: breaking horses and cobbling were arts. Fine Art evolved symbiotically alongside a strengthening bourgeoisie which, in forging its own understanding of culture, supported those painters, composers, sculptors and writers who shared with it a desire to remake the world. However revolutionary their humanism, these new artists did not reject their artisan precursors. Politically, they may have been radical, but culturally they were pursuing better conditions and more interesting problems to solve.

In the late nineteenth century, a different attitude emerged. Many artists no longer looked so benignly on their predecessors, and by the early twentieth century, the whole sweep of the past, along with the institution of art itself, had been tossed into the shredder by the historic avant gardes3. The old structure of a loose network of schools collapsed into a militant wave of movements as these artists, casting a cold eye on imitation and representation, leapt headlong into the new world of electricity, machinery, photography, telephony, phonography, flight, radio, mechanical warfare, speed and science. By 1917, Marcel Duchamp, throwing down the gauntlet of the readymade, brought it finally to the condition of philosophy - in which the question of what art is became a vital part of what art is.

IV. Perspective.

Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, the art history of the twentieth century is often told through the successions and negotiations between its self-generating movements: Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Supremicism, Futurism, Dada, Bauhaus, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, Arte Povera - and so on. And although this desire to keep the historical narrative tidy has lead inevitably to distortions - very often missing the point altogether - there is no doubt that these movements existed and that they did help create through their work and manifestos both coherent communities and focused discourses, or, that by holding on to an idea of history themselves, even in the context of continuous supersession, they managed also - more or less - to hold together a centred public narrative of progress. And because this history had a centre and a direction, it could also have outriders: avant and arriere gardes. By the 1960's, this belief was thoroughly compromised; art went into free fall and begun increasingly to repeat itself. From the 1970's onwards, there were few new major public movements that were not somehow looking backwards. And without a self-understood centre, there could no longer be meaningful edges or fringes. Positions that had once been orientated toward a putative future floated away and became independent propositions as a generation of artists emerged who neither accepted their forbears and moved on, nor demanded a tabula rasa, but began instead to pillage the past for fragments (or selectively to revive individual parts of it). Directionality collapsed. One artist's avant might be another's arriere (or derriere4). It just depended on which way you thought you were facing.

V. Unfinished business.

Why locate the tipping point in the 1960's, a period of great and radical upheaval in the arts; a period indeed which from our present perspective looks something like a golden age: one of those rare rifts in time in which the life of art seems to move completely into the present tense, when what is new is also immediately alive to public consciousness? Because, during the 1950's, a group of visual artists, despite the climate of relentless progress, had begun to look back into the past for inspiration, specifically toward the avant garde of Dada and anti-art5. At the same time, anti-art, in the form of readymade materials and non-intentionality, began to perturb the world of music for the first time, driven by the implacably consequent John Cage. These two tendencies slowly flowed together, and it was in the 1960's that their mutual offspring began exploding with a luxurience of hybrid applications. The consequence was a general shift in orientation, as the future began increasingly to be sought in the past.

'Making money is art [..] good business is the best art.' Andy Warhol (1975)6.

Appearing first in Britain but soon spreading to America, Pop Art (sometimes in its early years called Neo-Dada) rudely crashed Abstract Expressionism's party, wilfully flaunting both its claim to authenticity and its insistence on abstraction, emotional intensity, and immanence. Pop took Abstract Expressionism as a model of High Art, Pure Art and Art-for-Itself and opposed it with Dadaistic profanity, irony, ridicule and satire. Revelling in visual cliché, supermarket products, commercial imagery, comics, readymades, collage, quotations and nostalgia, Pop employed techniques adapted from photomontage, film, advertising and mass production, systematically undermining high art with design and commodity trivia. Politically driven, it succeeded in mounting an initially effective attack on a mediagenic world through iconic subversion and ironic commentary. And in the disbelieving hands of Andy Warhol it returned also, in another - and critical - echo of Dada and Duchamp, to a recontextualised self-reflexivity amounting to practical philosophy - although its provocations were now aimed as much at mass media and the marketplace as the art community and its institutions. With multiples and happenings, Brillo boxes and objects trouvees, books of raw transcript and films of raw time, Warhol mercilessly stretched and tested the category of art - again – but this time in the face of its dubious segregation from the rest of the goods in the store.

Deliberately using mass production techniques, cheap, impermanent materials, stolen images and his own variation on the readymade, Warhol invested his claim to art in an uncompromising attempt to avoid fulfilling any of its remaining criteria. Instead he immersed himself in an incestuous mediated culture of sensation, narcissism and money, throwing that world back at itself in a deeply ambiguous combination of ridicule and celebration.

Pop Art sent a tiny tremor through the system, but art-coded attacks on the status quo were familiar and easily absorbed. Even anti-art had long since quietly been re-categorised as art and, by 1960, Duchamp's Fountain was no longer a question but a keynote artwork, well on its way to becoming the apotheosis of art itself7. Whereas the Dadaists in their time had been peripheral, baffling and potentially dangerous, Warhol, in his, was a mainstream star, perhaps himself baffled (and eventually physically endangered) by his own success. Certainly, the harder he tried to affront sense and taste, or to deny that what he was doing was art, the more highly he was praised and the higher his status as an artist rose8. When asked - in what turned out to be his last recorded interview - what he considered to be his greatest achievement he said, with an honesty heard but no longer understood: 'Keeping a straight face.'

The rebellion of Pop ended when irony and reality became indistinguishable. Warhol's own kamikaze contribution, and what distinguishes him from his contemporaries, had been to show that, freed from the institutions, and even to a certain extent from the artists themselves, Art, with a capital A, was now the exclusive property of the market. And, alongside all the other isms, avant garde TM had also slipped quietly into its place as a wholly owned subsidiary of Art Inc.

'When everybody is a revolutionary the revolution is over.' Clement Greenberg (1968)9

Linear reading collapsed. The sixties saw movements implode, proliferate, fracture and recycle. Horizontal succession gave way to a chaotic vertical proliferation: Op Art, Object Art, Abstract Symbolism, Happenings, Assemblage, Photo-Realism, Hard Edge, Colour Field, Shaped Canvas, Earthworks, Body Art, Arte Povera, Minimalism, Kinetic Art, Performance Art, Luminous Art, 'NO!art,' Common object Art, Cybernetic Art and Systems Art; all came and went in the space of a few short years. More durable - and indeed still with us - was Concept Art, with its endless repetitions and permutations, and Fluxus, currently in the middle of a revival of interest. Like Pop, but with less acumen, and without the insight toward the new condition of ArtTM, Fluxus looked back toward the past. George Maciunas's 1962 manifesto: 'Neo-Dada in Music, Theatre, Poetry and Art' was unambiguous about this.10 And although it developed its own focus, manifestos and, sometimes, topical content, Fluxart remained in essence a revival, or, more positively, a taking up of threads. And revivals, while they may yet bring new arguments and new techniques to the table, may equally be indicators of cultural exhaustion. They are certainly not in any respect avant garde.


VI. Music and the historic avant garde.

How does music map onto this narrative? Although different media doenn't march in step, there are necessarily points of contingency where the specificities of any given discourse disappear into the broader concerns and perspectives of an age. Of the historic avant gardes, it can be said that virtually no music was directly associated with Constructivism, Russian Futurism or Dada. Italian Futurism, however, did produce a few half-remembered composers and four dedicated manifestos: three fairly run-of-the-mill pamphlets by composer Francisco Bailla Pratella, and one seminal work 'The Art of Noises' by painter Luigi Russolo, who also put theory into practice by building and composing for his groundbreaking, but largely ignored, intonorumouri. Although Russolo's manifesto was prophetic, none of his instruments, and only a few of their designs, survived. Of the handful of pieces written for them, mostly by the inventor and his brother, none is more than a curiosity today. And, although Stravinsky and Varese both expressed an initial interest, neither pursued it; indeed Varese, possibly the most visionary of all twentieth century composers, went out of his way to repudiate the Futurist's vision of music as early as 1916.

'There's still a lot of good music left to be written in C major.' Arnold Schoenberg.

More generally, Futurism did have a broad and sometimes powerful influence on a number of contemporary composers, and what came to be referred to as machine music was generally associated with the movement - or at least with Modernism as it was refracted through the Futurist lens.11 But then, music had always been at home with Modernism. Indeed, after centuries of being considered rather conservative and always lagging behind the visual arts, it had become, by the late C19, the model that all arts were said to aspire to.12 Yet, paradoxically, unlike the spatial or object-arts, which were constantly haunted by survivals from, and the authority of, classical antiquity, music had for centuries been looking forward, privileging novelty and innovation over lost ancient practices of which no sounding evidence survived. Thus while the object-arts were burdened by exemplary relics in a way that the event-arts were not - and might require nothing short of total rupture to free them - music remained preoccupied - and was continually revivified - by the internal problems arising from its own continuity. It was certainly not ready to dig itself up by the roots; indeed its primary urge remained to protect, as well as to extend, its borders, not to dissolve them. Dissolution would be the work of Cage, Fluxus and the New York School, many years hence13. Thus it was that, throughout the rampage of the avant gardes, composers for the most part continued in their traditional pursuit of individual solutions, quietly or publicly exploring possible ways of writing meaningfully for their own time. And while they could easily match the historic avant gardes for the number of riots provoked, rules broken and core assumptions challenged, composers, as a rule, continued to understand themselves as working within a tradition rather than against one14.

VII. The birth of anti-music.

It was not until the late 1940's that the qualifier avant garde was finally attached to a music, and then it was to the output of composers connected through the Darmstadt Summer school, home notably of total serialism, which for years did act as a group, did proselytise, was extravagantly ambitious and did appear to operate with collective rules - forcefully identifying itself as a leading cadre in the arts. Some of its celebrities were also immodestly capable of gross intolerance: 'All composition other than that of 12 tone is useless' (Pierre Boulez). Like other neo-movements, this 'avant garde' looked initially back to the past, extolling and extending proposals made by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg some thirty years earlier, but now raising them to the status of a dogma15. In the world of Art Music, it seems that the avant garde was born facing backwards. At the same time, in the United States, John Cage and his associates - who also constituted a distinct community, though with instincts far more revolutionary than conservative - did not consider themselves an avant garde at all but rather 'experimental' artists;16 indicating perhaps that the older term had already become associated with reactionary, proscriptive, intolerant and authoritarian attitudes. It was the experimentalist, Cage, and not the Darmstadt avant garde who arrived at the genuinely radical musical equivalent of the philosophical move first made by Duchamp with his readymades.

With Fountain (1917) Duchamp had taken an object - a mass produced commodity (thus devoid of originality) chosen, he said, for its lack of aesthetic significance, and had submitted it for exhibition. If it was an artwork - and it claimed to be - it took the form of a nest of questions.

With his 1952 composition 4'33", Cage issued a similar challenge to music. This work comprised three consecutive durations of silence - meaning that any sound actually heard in performance would not have been determined by the score (although it could be argued strongly that it was intentionally included in it) and would be completely outside the control of the composer. Of course, commonsense says silence is not music, nor is unintended noise. The event, however, took place in a concert hall and was announced as a composition by a recognised composer. If it was a composition - and it claimed to be - it took the form of a nest of questions.

Since neither Duchamp nor Cage could claim that their object - or event - had any intrinsic qualities that might distinguish it from any urinal or any silence, what made either of them art or music? To put it another way, what would art or music have to be for either of these productions to be an instance of it? That was the question. Cast in the form of a work.17

In its very quiet way, 4'33" represents nothing less than an attempt to dissolve the category of music. It asks of music, as the readymade asks of art: if this is music, then what is not? 18

This question has been the ghost at every feast thereafter.

John Cage's score for 4'33"
'Classification ... ceases when it's no longer possible to establish oppositions.' John Cage (1968/73).19

To be useful, a definition requires limits - things that it excludes. The implication of 4'33", as of the readymade, is that nothing is excluded and thus that any object presented to the eye could fall within the purlieu of art, or any presentation to the ear, whether it sounds or not, could be experienced as music. But the formulation 'X is everything' can hardly succeed as a meaningful definition. Thus it must be doing some other work. With Duchamp, I believe it was largely philosophical and metalinguistic. With Cage, thirty six years later, there is more: the question remains, but when it is cast in the light of his deliberate abandonment of intentionality the year before, it also becomes an instruction to the listener to interpret - and thus in large part to create - the work.20 With such mechanical chance procedures an author is at pains to create nothing and to say nothing. This can still function as communication on a metalinguistic level - as a kind of question - but only usefully once. After that, it is just repetition. Cage's use of indeterminacy is clearly not merely to pose a question but to impose a formula that seeks to make dialogue disappear into sets of interpretative monologues.21 If Cage's move is accepted at face value, art becomes a series of riddles to which there are no answers. It also ceases to be a medium of communication and becomes instead an opportunity for perception.

While this notion has borne much fruit, it has also proved highly problematic.

Duchamp's radical proposition - his concept of a work that disappears into the idea of itself - was, I think, in the context in which it first appeared, meaningfully avant garde. Repetition of that question is not. Beyond this, when the primary responsibility for meaning is shifted deliberately from producer to interpreter, any residual notion of an avant garde must inevitably vanish with it. No public can be in advance of its own taste.

VIII. Convergence.

This mid-century return to the unfinished business of the historic avant gardes - especially in the unequivocal forms pursued by Fluxus - merged seamlessly with the dizzying influence of Cage's collapse of music, an event-art, into the condition of post Duchampian art-in-general. Sound was just to be another material. The border that had inoculated music against the existential crisis in the visual arts, a border maintained by a clear self-understanding of its own goals and limits and, above all, by the acquisition and manipulation of necessary skills, became increasingly porous - and after 4'33", (where that was accepted at face value) collapsed altogether. Cage and Fluxus merged their understandings with one another22. An Object-Art that had opened into an event became in principle indistinguishable from an Event-Art that had opened into an object: and now both vanished into concepts in which neither object nor event was required at all23. Art no longer merely aspired to the condition of music but absorbed it into its own general condition. Thus, while 4'33" may still be music, it may also be art, or performance, or theatre. Fluxartists refer to their instruction sets and scripts as scores while composers write scores that do not specify sounds; Fluxorchestras make cabaret, while composers tune radios, navigate with echolocators and noisily rearrange the furniture. Arts merge into art - which becomes whatever you can get away with - and skills become optional and interchangeable. Where does that leave Laokoon?24

IX. Other roads.

When everything is art, or when all sound is music25, there is nowhere left to go, except maybe to retreat to an earlier position in the hope of finding a road not taken that does not end in a cul de sac. From a different perspective, however, or from alternative readings of history, many viable roads may still beckon.

Theorists naturally have their own analytical agendas, but for artists local problems are usually more pressing - and more productive. And while they may lack the breadth of the death-or-glory narratives of the avant gardes, they are intimate with long, rooted, antinomies in their own fields; useful antinomies that continually generate solutions. Throughout the twentieth century proposals were made and works embodying them presented that did not trouble themselves with meta-discourses or global visions but quietly pursued their own discipline's more secular, local interests. Of course, all artists face the issues of their own time - that is, after all, the conversation in which they are engaged - but they do so for the most part within terms and boundaries that are inherited and not invented. To work at all, for the majority of artists, is to engage in a constant debate not only with the current concerns and propositions of their disciplines, but also those that extend far back into its past - because every gesture and tool at their disposal comes locked into its own history, which limits and makes meaningful its signifying possibilities.

'To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.' Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953).26

I want briefly to consider music in its aspect as a species of language. I know this is a minefield, so I will try to spell out what I mean and what I don't. I wish to highlight only that congeries of common features (or family resemblances) that unite a broad group of arbitrary, human signifying systems that pre-exist their users; were created by no one, are defined by no one and can be learned only through use and exposure - ideally from the earliest age. These are systems that live and evolve through informed use and negotiation (and in the modern world are constantly in a state of agonistic re-evaluation). I am not trying to map 1:1 semantic, grammatical or syntactical correspondences, just to claim a broad structural family resemblance. Like any signifying system, music is a medium of human communication dependent upon some involuntary ground shared between its producer and interpreter; it belongs within a loose family of language-games in which the comprehensibility of any utterance reflects the extent to which it has accepted and employed what is already given, even when that is expressed through determined subversion. To be meaningful, a new work must always be grappling with the language it employs and therefore with the history of that language as well as its immediacy. It can never be on solid ground and must always move in the awareness of many considerations and conventions at once. Thus, the accommodation of ambiguity and the expectation of goodwill are essential to it. And while fixity of meaning exists in inverse proportion to the amount of entropy or chaos in a signifying system, type of meaning is a function of the language game in play. Mathematical discourses seek to eradicate ambiguity; artistic discourses to exploit it. Both are dependent on resilient discursive structures without which directionality would be lost and conversation rendered profoundly unreliable. In use, languages simply work. But when the approach is analytical, then the model held of the system becomes critical. Instead of common ground enabling a generally secure passage through exchanges, a disconnected model of language - Saussure's, for example, where signifier and signified relate only to one another - makes a performer the manufacturer of an object and an interpreter that object's independent user. Interpretation then necessarily becomes increasingly voluntary and capricious at the expense of the integrity of language itself. As Saussure's dyadic system rigidified leads to the cul de sac of Derrida, so do Duchamp (or Cage) rigidified lead to the abandonment - or total relativisation - of art (or music). With no fulcrum, nothing can be moved. That is the essential point to which this essay constantly returns.

If my analogy is accepted on the terms outlined above, then perhaps we can use it to underpin a useful sense of the qualifier avant garde, since it was the distinction, it seems to me, of the historic avant gardes that they made a specific attempt to sever their dependence on inherited languages altogether, and not, as other movements and players had done, to extend, ramify or uniquely employ existing discourses, or selectively to challenge accumulated cliches and habits. Theirs was a change in quality, not quantity, and it answered a perceived crisis that seemed to call for nothing less than wholesale revolution.

X Metalanguage

It may seem at first that, from the point of view of the arts considered as a set of interlocked languages (or signifying systems), radical departure from all grounded rules would be self-defeating, since it would necessarily result in a kind of gibberish. However, the work of the historic avant gardes are certainly meaningful to us, indeed we celebrate it. In part, of course, this is because the work itself has in time helped to change our understanding. But I think there is another reason: the effect, especially of the most radical of the avant garde propositions, was not simply to run against habitual usage but to shift the entire discourse onto another plane - and into a different language: the meta-plane of self-reflexivity - mediated for the most part through verbal discourse (internal or dialogical)27 - and the language of philosophy. With this shift, art was enabled for the first time to speak to and about itself, as art, even if at the risk of ceasing to be comprehensible as art and becoming instead, at least in the immediate term, a species of thought. Nothing more encapsulates the power and the danger of this shift of discursive perspective than the readymade, which has come now to inform and legitimate much contemporary - and all conceptual - art. For some, what was once a question has now become a formula. 'Is everything art?' has been recast as 'everything is art,' fatally sidelining the intermediate pair: 'can everything be art / everything can be art,' both of which clearly keep the conversation open. The danger is that if Duchamp's move is accepted at face value (and the same applies to Cage in the sphere of music), then the bottle-rack or silence cease to be contextual conundrums about art and become solvents that undermine the possibility of coherent conversation altogether. The effect of this is to render obsolete the inherited languages of art and music, causing their roots to atrophy and their pasts to become little more than objectified material: useful for mining, plundering and making sly references to, but no longer part of any living body.


XI. Perspectives and conversations.

The early twentieth century was a time of general crisis for art, a time when many visual artists - and virtually all composers - were trying to find some firm ground from which to respond to the catastrophic problems and opportunities thrown up by new sensibilities, new media, electricity, Freud, Einstein; the whole apparatus of modernism - without necessarily vapourising, as the avant gardes proposed, the ground on which they stood. In their search for answers that would not destroy the patient, the constituents of the broader art community were perfectly able to distinguish between avant garde rhetoric and individual works. They took what was useful to them and ignored what was not; at the same time making their own proposals in the form of works that grew logically from the history and endemic concerns of their disciplines. This was particularly true in the field of music.

XII. Alternatives

'... sounds should be just sounds….in order that each sound may become the Buddha.' John Cage (1959).

In all his aleatoric works after Sixteen Dances (1951), John Cage can be located at one extreme of a conversation about communication and reception that proposes to remove intentionality from the production of works. In this, he would share a practice, if not a motive, with Mallarme, with the many Surrealists who experimented with automatic writing and with Marcel Duchamp in his careful non-fashioning of readymades. More than any other composer Cage represents the anti-art aspect of the historic avant gardes, though he couches his own proposition in terms of dissolution through total inclusion. On the other side of this debate, defending the proposition that intention, as the basis of meaningful communication, was a necessary condition of music, we would find just about every other composer before 1950 - all of whom insisted on refining a more or less carefully planned architecture of tones, durations and their combinations in pursuit of order and argument; or emotional expression and sensation – or shaded combinations of the two. Between intention and non-intention, Process Music, Systems Music and Stochastic music emerged, moving the conversation deeper into the implications and possibilities Cage had raised.

Or again: the generating power of sacral mathematics and ratio have run like a root through the life of music for over two and a half millennia. In this debate, unlike the one above, Schoenberg, who dedicated his life to the retention and protection of the sacral, and who was profoundly convinced of the deep relation of number lying behind the flesh of sounding, would find himself close to his former pupil Cage - a man who for much of his life was so focused on form that it was a matter of relative indifference to him with what sound (or absence of sound) it was filled. La Monte Young would be a sympathetic contributor to this side of the discussion, as would R. Murray Schaffer, or Harry Partch - or, more ambiguously, Iannis Xenakis. Across the table sit those for whom the control of surface and the grain of sound-for-itself are more significant than spiritual depth or number - the phenomenologists. The radicals in this debate would be the pioneers of Musique Concrete, who eschewed the formalism of calculated structure altogether, focusing almost exclusively on sounding content: indeed, for them, surface was content. Less extreme but close would be someone like Edgard Varese.28 And, in general, their argument was little more than a logical extension of a feeling that was one of the practical distinctions of the twentieth century: that sound could be bone, not merely flesh.

Just about everybody agreed that the vocabulary of music had radically to be extended and made adequate to the needs and conditions of the day.29

Agreements, disagreements – always some focal issue, some question or problem intentionally addressed.

The point is that it is these conversations, oppositions, accommodations, compromises and proposals - made mostly in the form of works - that constitute the life of music and delimit the terms in which that life unfolds. There is no tidy, single, linear tale to be told. And on the ground, the conversation remains open, however inaudible some of the participants may be for much of the time.

In these debates the avant gardes might be said to have operated as a 'purgative' (Marcel Duchamp 1946).30 But they did not define the debate even if they made a profound and permanent impression on it, and they should be understood as embodying powerful propositions not, as they claimed, definitive endgames. That said, as a demolition crew, they were indispensable: the most powerful expression of an uncompromisingly revolutionary response to a pressing, if temporally local, crisis. And although that crisis is not yet resolved, their proposals have all been absorbed into it, even if not universally accepted. Well, all of them bar one, the most radical: that art dissolve itself altogether. This has proved impossible. Even at its most revolutionary, even with the readymade, even with 4'33", art could not make that fatal step away from itself: indeed, those very interventions could only be effective and meaningful if they were art, otherwise they would just be bottle racks and silences. The philosophical extension of art's own practice into self-examination, far from challenging the status of art, has been taken as a Cartesian proof of its existence.

The historical avant gardes have cleared the decks. That was their work and that work is done. You can keep blowing up the ruins but rubble is already rubble.

Offering radical propositions within a genre (or across genres) has been the general way of art throughout the twentieth century, so restricting the application of avant garde to those ultra-provocative movements that proposed the revolutionary rejection of inherited languages seems useful to me, and I propose to adhere to that usage, and not to extend the term to ever weaker assignments that merely describe what became twentieth century art-as-usual.


XII. Dominoes.

After Darmstadt, the description avant garde next appears in a wholly different context; applied to radical developments in a particular strand of black American jazz. Avantgarde jazz was conceived as urgent and visionary. It pursued formal and technical innovations, like l'art pour l'art, but at the same time lived in the intensification of emotional expression. A unique hybrid, it adopted from high art discourse the idea of extended technique, originality and genius, at the same time retaining from its popular origins immediacy, improvisational skills and the raw social intimacy of its quotidian context - clubs and bars. It made no claim to universality, nor to the future, but rather, by accentuating its difference from the familiar and the mainstream, addressed a specialised community in the immediacy of its experience. Through this unique combination of formal complexity and emotional directness it claimed authentic (as opposed to commercial) popularity, and at the same time declared itself a serious, and uniquely black, artform. This claim to art status from the sphere of popular music, especially the scary lowlife club culture of black people, was as unprecedented as it was radical. And in this sense, it wasn't merely avantgarde in its relation to the jazz world but posed a challenge not easily dismissed to the already beleaguered gatekeepers of art music for whom acceptance of Cage had created severe categorical difficulties. If all sound is music, so is the stupidest pop song, never mind a clearly 'difficult,' experimental and often abstract form like avantgarde jazz.

The jazz avantgarde, unlike its earlier namesakes was distinguished by its claim to art, not by a rejection of it.

This too was an avantgarde that neither rejected its forbears nor wished to set a new template for music. Having left both commercial and quasi-commercial music and their audiences behind, avantgarde jazz hoped by example to bring other musicians and an engaged, if limited, public - to its own position. But not more than that. Indeed it could be authentic only so long as it remained marginal. As the voice of a minority, its power was a direct political function of its blackness. It did not ask what its public wanted but offered what it thought that public needed to grow strong, identify itself and be free. In its difficult admixture of formal complexity, emotional directness, authenticity and protection from general absorption, this avant garde raised difficult questions that could only be answered outside the music itself. It also offered a complete inversion of the later Cagean position: where Cage had eschewed intention altogether through a rigid formalism, free jazz by relaxing nearly all formal constraints, allowed intention absolute dominion.

XIII. Rock.

Two decades later, it was something like this jazz sense of avant garde that was applied to certain strands of rock, initially extending the art claim to elements of an even lower – at that time perhaps the lowest - musical form. However, while avantgarde jazz was pretty clearly defined, what qualified as avant garde rock seemed to be a question less to do with form and more to do with who was using the term, and why. By now, this vagueness of use seemed somehow to be correlated with a similar vagueness in the culture itself.

Sometimes, as with avantgarde jazz, formal innovation was implied - along with high/low and experimental/popular elisions; sometimes left wing political status; sometimes that the music was considered to be in advance of public taste (though there was no suggestion that the public would ever agree with that judgement or catch up with it); sometimes, simple outsider status was indicated, or that the music was considered shocking, or just unusual, by some designated listening community.

By this stage, in other words, the term was clearly in danger of losing any coherent meaning at all31. Look up avant garde rock on the internet; it has become little more than a hopeful badge of honour. Otherwise, it serves as an off-the-shelf commercial label for general application (Lou Reed, Brian Eno and John Cale are avant garde). In short, it has been colonised, flattened and neutralised and all the history has been drained out of it - in part because all the history is currently being drained out of history.

Thus has the practical wisdom of the demos been expressed through the evolution of language. To put it another way, so long as there is a meaning in the world, there will be a need for a term that encompasses it, and that term will emerge and hold itself together. When that meaning evaporates, the term it necessitated will escape, and either mutate to serve another useful purpose, or dissipate. When it is obviously floating free, that is probably a sign to let it go.

XIV. Lost, one signifier.

From this brief survey of the actual, non academic, use of the qualifier avant garde to music, continuity of meaning would imply that the baton of radical progress has passed from a strand of contemporary music to jazz, and then to rock. Or perhaps more plausibly that in these three genres a leap has been made to the condition of art, a condition that tends to level and dissipate their individual generic coherence - in other words, to erase them as independent genres. Certainly the fringes of contemporary composition, jazz, electronics and rock have become increasingly indistinguishable. On the other hand, discontinuity of meaning would imply that some thing-in-the-world has disappeared and left the word that contained it to drift and free associate. Both can be interpreted as true. Neither leaves much work for the qualifier to do.

The fact remains that in a media-dominated discourse, avant garde today implies little more than 'breaking or appearing to break ranks with market consensus,' even if sometimes it may still retain homeopathic traces of political engagement, cultural prescience or technical innovation. Even when those traces are strong, the term does them no service because it buries and negates them. One has seriously to ask whether anyone believes that the term can be useful any more, or whether, along with Freedom, Democracy and Truth, it should join the ranks of Vaneigem's corpses in the mouths of the bourgeoisie?

XV. Quo Vadis?

The struggle with the academy has been won. The market has taken its place. Unlike the old art institutions, the market, being impersonal, amorphous and many-headed, has no central authority to attack. Moreover it has the proven power to absorb whatever is thrown at it and to recast everything it touches into its own shape. Although avantgardism may prove to have been one of the great cultural achievements of the modern period, helping, through its very absolutism, to kick-start a new art practice and to liberate, once and for all, media, form and imagination - making everything and anything the proper matter of aesthetic work - the world that needs such avant gardes is gone, precisely because their work is done. That work was definitive; entropic; a river that may not be stepped into twice; a one-time catalyst that effected an irreversible change of state.

The new problems we face today are problems that avantgardism has helped to create and which its methods can no longer solve.

The avant garde is dead. That is its triumph. Let it lie.


"Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use... silence, exile, and cunning."
-- James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

above copied from:

1 Until at least the end of the seventeenth century painting and sculpture were classified as mechanical, not liberal, arts; '..neither art nor artist, as we use the words, is translatable into archaic or high classical Greek.' (Havelock. Preface to Plato, 1963); 'The Renaissance.... had no real equivalent of our Fine Art.' (Kemp, Behind the Picture, 1997).' And so on. In this essay, then, I will use art always to mean Fine Art - that is to say that post enlightenment European concept of an autonomous realm of production and reception to which we still adhere, and not to the more utilitarian understandings of art as varieties of techne which preceded it. It is the concept of Fine Art that is thrown into crisis by the historic avant gardes, and it is the consequence of their critical challenge that I try to trace below.

2 In 1913, Duchamp famously asked "Can one make works, which are not works of art?" In 1917, his assisted readymade, Fountain - a commercially mass-produced urinal that he had bought in a shop - was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists in New York, specifically on the grounds that it was not art. And it was not exhibited. The 'original' Fountain was then lost. Few today, however, dispute that Fountain was and is an artwork, or that, by implication, any object at all might be an artwork. In fact just the idea of an object might be an artwork (subsequent, exhibited, 'Fountains' were newly purchased from commercial outlets without in any way affecting the status of the work). Even the idea that a mass-produced urinal (or bottle-rack, or snow shovel, or anything at all) might be an artwork might itself be accepted as an artwork now.

3 I will use this term of Peter Burger's to refer at least to Constructivism, Russian and Italian Futurism and Dada.

4 In Fluxartist Yoko Ono's case ('Bottoms,' 1966).

5 Three short comments:
1. Robert Motherwell's book, The Dada painters and poets was published in 1951 and is constantly referenced by artists of this generation, though surely it was more a symptom than a cause.
2. I say anti-art, but anti-art and non-art seem confusingly to merge into one broad concept in this period - and of course by then Dada already belonged tacitly in the camp of art.
3. If I single out Andy Warhol in the pages that follow, it is because it seems to me that he took cogniscence of the changed context of his borrowings in a way that many of his contemporaries did not, concentrating more on the conditions of meaning than on its production and insisting not on his own freedom so much as acting to expose the conditions of his confinement.

6 Andy Warhol. From A to B and Back Again. 1975

7 In 2004, it was voted the most influential artwork of the C20. Perhaps this accolade was intended as a slyly philosophical art event? But I think not. Interviewed in 1962, Duchamp was already resigned to the new situation: 'When I discovered the readymades, I hoped to discourage the carnival of aestheticism [...] I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their face as provocations, & now they are admiring their aesthetic beauty.'

8 Sometimes, it did seem to depend which side of the joke his public felt they were on: when Warhol sent look-alikes to stand in for him at university engagements, some of those attending became quite indignant - although his action seems entirely consistent with the WarholTM brand; in fact was even rather an exquisite instance of it.

9 Clement Greenberg. 'avant garde Attitudes'. 1968.

10 In spite of the later disavowals of some of the Fluxalumni, who echoed the Dadaists even in this retrospective redrawing of their own recent history.

11 George Antheil's Ballet Mechanique - in fact his entire composing and performing career from the early '20s to the mid '30s - would be exemplary, blending a repetitive machine aesthetic with Stravinsky's take on 'primitive' folk rhythms.

12 'All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.' Walter Pater, 'The Renaissance,' 1873. Until the fourteenth century the status of music was pitched far below that of painting, but by the eighteenth century the situation had effectively been reversed. Seeing music as the first of the arts to escape the Aristotelian task of imitating nature, writers from the late sixteenth century onwards (Schiller, Goethe, Schopenhauer, de Stael, Baudelaire, Hanslick, Whistler...) increasingly promoted its superiority over, and its power as a model for, the other arts. For many, the idea of Absolute Music became an ideal for art in general.

13 The breakdown of the sharp division between Object arts and Event arts is a crucial aspect of the story of the emergence of new artforms consequent on the appearance of ambiguous new media in the mid to late nineteenth century - I think of film and sound recording in particular, both of which were time-traps or event-objects: events in their unfolding and objects in their straight-from-the-world repeatability. The pursuit of an integration of space- and time-based arts (deeply ingrained as fundamentally incompatible since at least the publication of Lessing's influential 'Laokoon,' in 1771) was endemic in the historic avant gardes, and was expressed in soirees, actions and performances, as well as, more obliquely, through ready-mades, photomontages, Rayograms and Merz works, in which the inclusion of the event of finding, making or presenting seems forcefully to be implied in the final object (something similar could be said, perhaps, of impressionism and abstract expressionism). It seemed that if art wanted to approach life, it would need to acknowledge that life was an event. In short, it has been one of the defining features of twentieth century art that admixtures of different media have grounded new forms and new fields of work. With the entry of sound into the condition of post avant garde art-in-general - following the critical interventions of John Cage in the 1950's - a critical levelling step was passed that laid the basis for a number of innovative new forms in which event and object, space and time-based arts collapse into genuinely new means of perceptual signification.

14 'My fight for the liberation of sound and for my right to make music with any sound and all sounds has sometimes been construed as a desire to disparage and even discard the great music of the past. But that is where my roots are. No matter how original, how different a composer may seem, he has only grafted a little bit of himself on the old plant. But this he should be allowed to do without being accused of wanting to kill the plant. He only wants to produce a new flower. It does not matter if at first it seems to some people more like a cactus than a rose...' Edgard Varese 'The Liberation of Sound,' 1936

15 Of course, looking to the past is not inherently conservative (the Renaissance for one looked back toward classical antiquity). But the simple claim to legitimation or inspiration from some aspect of the past may, according to circumstance, express varied impulses: returning to a path from a thicket, sloughing off accumulated noise, asserting authority for what are in effect new insights. Context in this, as in so much else, is everything. In the case under observation, Darmstadt seems in part to have been trying to mount a late defence against continuing dissolution, while Fluxus strove to accelerate the process of dissolution in order to force art into the condition of a new paradigm.

16 Michael Nyman in his invaluable book Experimental Music (1974) spells out the difference between the 'avant garde' and the 'experimentalists' at this time, as does John Cage in his address to the convention of the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago in 1957 (reprinted in the brochure accompanying George Avakian's 3 LP recording of The Cage twenty-five-year retrospective concert at Town Hall, New York, 1958. KO8Y-1499 -1505).

17 But was that work an artwork or some other kind of work? If we think it was an artwork, we have already answered, and therefore rendered redundant, its raison d'etre as a question – and then where is the work? Duchamp himself took great care to exclude the objects themselves from any art value their real or virtual presentation might claim. And that removal was the basis of his own claim to have produced a work. But when form is irrelevant, and content is lost along with the loss of the historically specific context that gave it meaning, what remains? Such works, after their initial proposition, become empty relics; at most evidence of critical moments in the history of art (or music). How else could they be meaningfully understood?

18 Cage had his own answer of course - that any sound could be music, including silence, 'If you want to know the truth of the matter, the music I prefer, even to my own or anybody else's, is what we are hearing if we are just quiet.' (Conversing with Cage, ed Kostelanetz, 1988).

19 John Cage 'Diary: how to improve the world (you will only make matters worse) continued 1968 (revised)' in M: Writings '67-72, London, 1973.

20 By using chance procedures and non-sentient systems to make decisions, Cage also deliberately avoided the Surrealists' appeal to the unconscious. Their uses of non-intentionality, such as automatic writing, were employed to sidestep conscious reason - with the implication that this might release deep, and therefore meaningful, archetypal forces buried in the unconscious mind. To avoid this, Cage deliberately eschewed the human for the inhuman in his aleatoric operations.

21 Duchamp recognised this problem and was careful to limit the number of readymades he presented as works, despite knowing that there was no limit.

22 And against the 'avant garde': For instance, in 1964, Fluxartists picketed Stockhausen concert in New York in an 'Action Against Cultural Imperialism,' handing out a leaflet written by George Maciunas condemning 'White ... Ruling Class Art.'

23 It was a musician involved with Fluxus, Henry Flynt, who coined the term 'Concept Art' - in his pages in An Anthology, edited by La Monte Young & Jackson Mac Low in 1963.

24 I do not intend to decry Pop Art, Fluxus or any of the extraordinary propositions made by artists in the last 60 years. Indeed, generally I celebrate them. Here I am only trying to answer a specific question about the validity, in the new conditions, of the concept of an avant garde - and parenthetically, perhaps, to raise the question of whether we are failing to recognise new categories as we attempt to subsume them under old ones - to the detriment of both.

25 Do I exaggerate? Here is a sample of statements that say not: 'To establish an artist's non-professional status in society... he must demonstrate that anything can be art and anyone can do it' (George Maciunas, 1965); 'If you want to know the truth of the matter, the music I prefer, even to my own or anybody else's, is what we are hearing if we are just quiet.' (John Cage, 1958 - see Fn. 15) and 'Sounds one hears are music.' (John Cage, 1968); 'It seems to me that the most radical redefinition of music would be one that defines 'music' without reference to sound' (Robert Ashley, 1961). There are plenty more.

26 Ludwig Wittgenstein. 'Philosophical Investigations.' 1953.

27 Much has been said about experience being central to contemporary art, but in this sense, at least, it is classical art that rests on its invocation of experience and modern forms that produce types of alienation that result in verbal contemplation?

28 John Cage wrote of Edgar Varese, meaning to praise him, that he was '...the first to write directly for instruments, giving up the practice of making a piano sketch and later orchestrating it' - before going on to criticise him for being ' artist of the past. Rather than dealing with sounds as sounds he deals with them as Varése'. (John Cage Silence, 1961). That set of mind seems to me rather to sum up the current confusion: one either accepts this as a meaningful criticism - or at least a clear statement of position - or wonders why Cage is so keen to erase the will to create and to communicate.

29 Again, perhaps with the exception of the later Cage who, it might be argued, made an attempt to escape the issue altogether. At the very least his goal, like Duchamp's, was profoundly ambiguous.

30 In an interview with James Johnson Sweeney in The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Vol XIII, no 4-5, reprinted in The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 1973. Or as Tristan Tzara wrote in the Dadaist Manifesto of 1918, 'There is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean.'

31 In mute recognition of this, Paul Griffiths' book A concise history of avant garde music published in 1978, was quietly renamed A concise history of Modern Music for its 1992 reprint.

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