Friday, April 16, 2010

A Panel Discussion on Ray Johnson, Charlie Finch

Transcribed from live radio broadcast on the Pacifica Network's Artbreaking, on WBAI-FM in New York hosted by Charlie Finch. Portions reprinted from Coagula Art Journal #18.

Shortly after the death of Ray Johnson, WBAI-FM art critic Charlie Finch and Artforum Executive Publisher Knight Landesman assembled a panel to talk about Johnson's art and legacy. The panel: Chuck Close, artist; Jill Johnston, critic; Richard Feigen, dealer, Mark Bloch, multi-media and mail artist.

Charlie Finch: You're listening to WBAI-FM 99.5 on your dial. Commercial-free, listener-sponsored radio. Welcome to Artbreaking, the Thursday afternoon arts magazine. Knight, why don't you introduce our guests live in the studio.

Knight Landesman: I have a lot of guests that I'm thrilled are here. In the Artforum upcoming we have a bunch of recollections of Ray Johnson from six people who knew him. We have two of them in the studio today and we also have two other people who knew Ray very well. So I'd like to talk about Ray and what his art was about and what his life was about. I'll ask our guests to tell us who Ray Johnson was because they can do it much better than I will.

I'm pleased to have in the studio today the marvellous painter Chuck Close, Jill Johnston, Richard Feigen, Mark Bloch and our host Charlie Finch, who knew Ray a little bit in relationship to this show.

Charlie Finch: Ray was a fan, I'm happy to say. Later on we'll be able to hear some messages. Mark Bloch has brought some tape.

Knight Landesman: Great! So we'll actually be able to hear the voice of Ray. Why Ray Johnson? Who was Ray Johnson for you? Let's go around the table and have everyone talk about who Ray was for them. Was he important? Who is he? Lets start with Chuck.

Chuck Close: Ray was a much more important artist than was generally recognized by the art world. He was an idiosyncratic figure. I think he was very inventive in bringing his work, through his collages, and things that he's known for, actually, predating Pop Art with the use of pop subject matter before Lichtenstein and Warhol. But, probably, he is best known to the general public as the inventor of the Correspondence School and of mail art.

Knight Landesman: How would you describe mail art? Was it something than an artist would make and send to other people?

Chuck Close: Well, alot of it was generated by Ray. That is, he sent things out and he sort of orchestrated a path for each of these things. He would send something to me and say 'add to and send to so and so' and you were supposed to send it on. We didn't always do it because sometimes we liked the stuff so much. We wanted to keep it. But eventually, it would make its circuitous way to wherever Ray had decided it should go.

Knight Landesman: When did he start to do mail art?

Chuck Close: I'm not sure exactly when he did start. In the 60s I think.

Mark Bloch: Well he founded his New York Correspondance School in 1962 though it offically started in 1968. But I noticed there was a correspondence with his friend Arthur Secuda who is a working artist, still. That was as early as 1943, where he was decorating his envelopes and playing around with the mail.

Knight Landesman: That's Mark Bloch speaking. A multi media artist who works with performance, computers, and video and also does mail art. How did you first know Ray and tell us about your relationship with him.

Mark Bloch: Ray is a very legendary person and he was only a legend to me when I was living in Southern Califoirnia in the late 70s. I was involved with mail art. I didn't know that he still did mail so I just started playing around, saying that I was Ray Johnson and I had changed my name to Ray Jones. And I started this thing called the God Jones Surf Club and all these spin-offs on Ray. If you knew Ray you would know that this delighted him and he sought me out tryed to find out who I was and what I was doing and and why. So that when I moved to New York in 1982 we began a correspondence. Eventually I met him at a party. He cornered me and just started asking lots of questions and we've been friends every since-- on the phone and in the mail.

Knight Landesman: Richard Feigen has been a dealer in New York for many years and also in Chicago. When did you first meet Ray?

Richard Feigen: I became aware of Ray's work probably at the end of the 50s. I was still in Chicago and I was very much involved with Surrealism at the time. I don't remember when I actually met Ray for the first time but I do remember seeing some of his collages. I wasn't as aware of his role or place as a kind of cult figure. Artist friends of mine told me that when they arrived in New York, there was this strange fellow down on the Lower East Side selling these little collages. He was here before anyone got here. And I reacted really visually.

Knight Landesman: You just liked what you saw?

Richard Feigen: My first reaction to something is I get very inquisitive. I want the thing. I saw these early Shirley Temple things and just wanted to own them. Later on all this sort of information about Ray accreted. I opened my New York gallery in 63. I can't remember when I started representing him. I know I find records of shows we had in, I think, '66 but alot of that stuff has been lost. But when I met him I realized that his personality was very much on the same wavelength as another artist whom I was very much involved with and who I admired-- Joseph Cornell. These two guys were on the same planet, but it wasn't this planet! I remember not long after I started to represent Ray, he wanted me to hire an airplane and drop 100 pounds of link sausages over Riker's Island. Things like that. His personality came after the work though. I still own my Ray Johnsons, and I don't want to give them up. They're extraordinarily beautiful things. And as mysterious and weird and poetic as they are, I think he was a seminal figure. I always did and it was hopeless in thirty-odd years to try and get him known. Because only the artists seemed to know who he was.

Knight Landesman: Did you continually represent him over those 30 years? Did you feel you were his art dealer?

Richard Feigen: Yes. And when I had my public gallery close in 1973 I opened up a more private space here. We still had a gallery in Chicago and still showed his work. But Ray didn't have a gallery as such. You had to work with Ray on his own terms. For instance, in recent years in Chicago we've been trying to have a show of his work. We've been trying to get him better known. Ray wanted to have a show with nothing in it!

Then I finally put my Chicago director on the case. I loved Ray, but it was an all-day, full time thing with Ray. You didn't just have a short conversation. You didn't really resolve it. He was very much like Cornell. That's why l was so, in a way, startled when he called me a few days before he died and asked me if I was interested in buying his James Dean collage which is a very famous work in Ray Johnson Land. Ray never wanted to sell anything! Looking back I don't know what he was trying to tell me.

Chuck Close: He didn't need the money, for he had considerable savings.

Richard Feigen: He was just like Joseph Cornell, who had annual reports stacked up on the porch of his home on Utopia Parkway. Both of them were very similar.

Knight Landesman: Did they know each other Cornell and Ray?

Mark Bloch: Ray went out to Cornell's on Utopia Parkway and I wish I could remember the story he told me but I don't. I only know Ray repeated over and over that Cornell spent the whole time sitting on the radiator, sobbing!

Knight Landesman: So people can understand why we're speaking about Ray in the past tense, on January 13, 1995, Ray Johnson jumped from a highway bridge into Sag Harbor Cove on Long Island and was seen backstroking away from land. His body was found the following afternoon having washed ashore nearby. All the people who knew him were very touched by him.

Knight Landesman: Jill Johnston, the emminent critic, can you tell us about your relationship with Ray?

Jill Johnston: I didn't have much of a relationship. Of course I knew Ray, everybody did in the 60s. I don't remember when I met him or even if I did meet him. As Richard said, Ray was kind of an alien. I was at a Fluxus-type performance. He was a very Fluxuxs type of artist then. I asked somebody why he never was a Fluxus artist and they said he just couldn't join anything. He was always a loner. But it was a small auditorium full of people, and I remember Ray running around the outside of the audience with Albert Fine. Just running around and creating his own event.

Knight Landesman: A kind of ecstatic joke...

Jill Johnston: I don't know that it was ecstatic. It was disruptive. One noticed. That's what I remember. I didn't correspond with Ray because he scared me. I found him extremely intense. I considered him an integral part of our scene-- one of the crazier ones. I heard from him before he died. I believe he commited suicide. Many people, apparently, had various kinds of messages from him before he died. His message to me was, ''Jill, Ronald Feldman sold the 'I'd Love to Turn You On' work, which has my hand lettering of your words in it to a charming California art dealer or something." Then I looked up the piece to see what words of mine he had appropriated, that he had hand written in 1969. My piece was called 'Casting for 69', it was published in the Village Voice, January 9, 1969. The first line of my piece was, "My story begins with some unfamiliar handwriting on an envelope." and of course, Ray copied that. He copied the first 452 words in a collage that he made. I found in this piece this line of mine which Ray had appropriated: "Then, at some age or other, for lack of any good reason to go on living, he commited suicide." At the end of these 452 words I had written 'You 've got to have something to be dismembered by.' Anybody who's into psychic phenomenon and stuff... Ive been thinking about it. That kind of resonated.

Mark Bloch: Yeah, I don't know if its psychic. I think it's a literal use of what you wrote to come back and haunt us, as it were. Alot of the things that I've been finding in my own correspondence with Ray and in collecting stuff from other people... and I'd like to talk to each of you about it, also... These clues are everywhere. There's lots of references to death, of course, and evertything else.

Knight Landesman: I'm curious if Chuck and Richard feel this way. Did you have premonitions that Ray would end his life in that way?

Richard Feigen: I didn't have any premonitions. But in retrospect all these clues are turning up and they did get more intense toward the end. One of these I just old you. He asked me if I wanted to buy the James Dean collage. Well he never wanted to sell anything. He never talked about that. I didn't take it as a clue. A few days later it looked like one. My colleague Francis Beattly had a call from Ray and I don't remember what it was but it indicated that he did have this in mind. So it seems obvious to me that he orchestrated this thing.

Jill Johnston: For what purpose?

Richard Feigen: I think its part of a whole effort, like a whole performance. I don't know. I don't think pragmatically to get himself better known, though it certainly has done that.

Jill Johnston: You don't think there was an emotional component at all in this?

Richard Feigen: Put it this way: I don't think Toby Spiselman, who was very close to him, knows. Or Bill Wilson. I really don't think anyone was that close to Ray. I don't think you can really know what was going on in his head but you can begin to piece it together retrospectively. By the way, I do want to say this: I found Ray as I say, on another planet. But I always found him a very gentle, benign personality.

Chuck Close: He looked scarier than he was.

Jill Johnston: That's right yeah.

Knight Landesman: Chuck, you weren't scared of him, right?

Chuck Close: No. (laughs)

Richard Feigen: No, because he had a shaved head? No!! He was very benign. He got frightened when Andy Warhol, his friend, got shot. He ran out to Locust Valley, Long Island for the rest of his life. He ran away.

Chuck Close: He moved out of the city and never came back.

Richard Feigen: He was harmless.

Chuck Close: He looked like a biker.

Richard Feigen: Yeah, I mean, he wore those black leather suits. Things like that. But he was a completely benign character.

Knight Landesman: Chuck, did you have premonitions of his death?

Chuck Close: As a matter of fact, I have a little trouble with gleaning clues now in retrospect. I think you can prove that aImost anyone died on purpose. If you want to sift through, you can find some references to death or whatever. Of course, he was obsessed with Natalie Wood's drowning. There is something about returning to the water, I suppose, that one could look for. I spoke to him several days before he dled, and we spoke regularly on the phone. As a matter of fact, Ray sounded very optimistic about the future and was talking about having shows. He had just put a new roof on his house.

Jill Johnston: Do you disagree with Richard that he orchestrated this?

Chuck Close: I also believe that he was very close to Toby Spiselman... it's just inconceivable to me. Although I do think that he committed suicide, I don't think it was as planned out, and a performance piece. Because I just don't think that he would do that to Toby and do that to people that he cared so much for.

Richard Feigen: I asked Toby this because I had alot of remorse. Because when he asked if I wanted to buy the James Dean collage, I said 'Of course I do Ray. But let me think about it.' I didn't know what kind of price. Who knows what Ray Johnson prices are! And I said #39;I'll call you back.#39; I got tied up I didn't call him back for a couple days and then I left for England. And I was there when I heard that he had drowned. So when I got back I said 'Toby, my god, I hope I didn't contriute to depressing him by not calling him back.' And she said 'No, no,' and then she gave me this whole litany of things that decisely meant that he was going to do this anyway. She was sure this whole thing was planned out. That he was sending out clues and there was nothing I could have done that would've changed his mind. And the same thing with this business that my colleague Francis Beatty was confronted with, with Ray. I don't remember what it was but it was on his mind.

Chuck Close: I think people who kill themselves are profoundly depressed, not because they want to boost their careers.

Jill Johnston: I was trying to suggest that.

Knight Landesman: I want to go around the table and ask people where they think Ray and his art will stand in in time in relationship to the other art of our time.

Chuck Close: I think that's hard, at this time, to really access. Ray had profound ambivalence about everything-- even about living-- from the looks of it. He wore his outsider status both as a badge of honor, and he also was incredibly pissed-off. He made things difficult, and yet he wanted attention desperately. He streaked his own lecture! It was like, how can you screw yourself up? It's so much a part of him.

Knight Landesman: Richard where do you think he'll be seen as an artist?

Richard Feigen: Well I haven't changed my mind in 30-odd years. I think he's at the very very top rank of seminal artists of the second half of the 20th century. I mean, this is what I do for a living so I think I have a perspective. I think I do. There's been never any question. His collage works, more than the the correspondence things, are of an extraordinary high order, aesthetically. Forget the fact that they are earlier than everybody else . They're just beautiful, beautiful things and they are very important. One of the clues, maybe, and I dont need any clues, is: we're borrowing works from Jasper Johns. I don't know, Chuck, if your lending, but we're borrowing stuff from all these artists. That's who knew Ray. That's who kept his work. Somebody like Jasper is a real collector. He's passionate about it.

Jill Johnston: Why are you borrowing these things?

Richard Feigen: We're borrowing it for our memorial exhibition.

Knight Landesman: Richard's doing a show that will open April 27. It's a memorial show for Ray Johnson. How long will it be up, Richard?

Richard Feigen: I don't remember. It will be up for a quite a while. What's happened now, since he died: I was at the National Gallery in Washington, recently, talking to its contemporary art curator, Mark Rosenthal. Before Ray died, it was like screaming into a wind tunnel trying to get a major museum to acquire a work of Ray Johnson's. Now, all of a sudden, he died and it's all over the press. Here's Artforum. The National Gallery wants one. And it's not going to be difficult to place Ray Johnson in these museums. And I'm talking now as an art dealer. I would submit if I'd been succesful in having a... getting Ray to cooperate and have a show in Chicago with my gallery, which we were trying to do for several years, I wonder if Artforum would have reviewed it. Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn't have. You certainly wouldn't be doing a huge article like this one. So there's no question that he's going to get known now and get placed in these museums and now collectors are going to start coming out of the woodwork and want his works. I have no doubt of it.

Knight Landesman: Mark, where do you see him fitting in?

Mark Bloch: I personally feel thast he's one of the most important artists of the century. I really do. And perhaps the most important one since Duchamp. Here's why: any young person who is doing mail art, who is doing zines or involved with cyberspace... these are all influenced by Ray Johnson. By correspondence, by highlighting the process as the art as opposed to the art object. His relationship to the art market is one thing. But when you look at someebody who was involved with a long lasting influence... we're talking about thousands of artists in over 50 countries who are still involved with mail art some thirty years after he began it. I can't think of an art movement that's lasted longer. I think his influence is huge. And like Richard said, the early pop art works are not only beautiuful but important because he was the first artist to ever work with a celebrity that I can find. I don't know of any other artist who took a celebrity and made that the subject of the art. I think as they look back on our century and they try to figure out what was happening, who did it first, I think they'll come up with Ray. Not to mention all the nothings and weird stuff that he did-- which was among the earliest performance work.

Jill Johnston: I think possibly his ambivalence, which Chuck pointed out, could pursue him into his after life. He needs a good explicator. He needs an in-depth, huge show collecting examples of his work, behind glass, of correspondence. And let's just say a book following correspondence with one person and annotated. That's the way I see it.

Chuck Close: He was, I think, a profoundly unique and idiosyncratic person. We don't do too well, as a country, as a culture, recognizing idiosyncratic people. We very much look for people in the mainstream. It'll take what Jill was suggesting, I think, that is, an interpreter to pull things together and point out to the rest of the world what artists have always known about Ray. Which is that there was a major contribution.

Knight Landesman: Charlie, you knew Ray briefly, right?

Charlie Finch: My friend Walter Robinson was, of course, a correspondent with Ray and was featured in a number of his bunny head pieces and I got one of Ray's last pieces of mail art right before he died, because Ray was a fan of my radio show and was nice enough to leave Mark Bloch a message on his answering machine about it. Let's hear Ray's voice on tapes that he made for Mark.
(Voice of Ray Johnson:) Mark, do you have Beatrice Wood 's phone number or address? Yes, no? (Click.)

Mark, Ray Johnson. I 'm looking at the photo in the New York Times of the collapsed roof on Delancey and Eldridge Streeet, near the lumber yard. (Click.)

Mark, Ray Johnson. Have you heard this one? It's President Bush talking about recession. They have this music in the backgroundwith it. I don't know who did it but its pretty good. Can you hear it? Can you hear it? (Click.)

Hi, Mark, this is Whoopie Goldberg, again.(Click.)

Hi Mark. I guess you're out on your honeymoon. Could you call me? (Click.)

Mark, it's Ray Johnson. The Sandra Gehring opening I told you about is on December 3rd from six to eight. (Click.)

Hi Mark. I'm listening to the Charlie Finch Show, he has a very nice voice. (Click.)

Hi Mark I like this big color xerox you sent me. (Click.)

Richard Feigen: I wish I'd taped some of those things.

Knight Landesman: Who do people think would be the right person to put a Ray Johnson show together? To curate such a show?

Richard Feigen: I don't know. Maybe Bill Wilson?

Jill Johnston: I think David Bourdon.

Richard Feigen: We borrowed 38 things from Bill Wilson and David Bourdon. I don't think many people know that much about Ray's work.

Knight Landesman: Do you think about him alot?

Richard Feigen: Yeah I do. I was very fond of him You couldn't get too involved with Ray or it was a full time thing. I loved the guy. But if you got on the phone with him, when we did reperesent him, it was all day long. You couldn't just do anything else. You couldn't represent anybody else. But in a lot of the conversations, for instance, with James Rosenquist... he's on this planet and there's a beginning and an end to what your talking about. He'll let it go as long as you want. There's a point to the conversation. With Ray there generally wasn't. So I honsestly miss him alot. I feel like I should have... I dont know... carried on these conversations more...

Jill Johnston: He still feels guilty.

Chuck Close: I think everybody who knew Ray feels guilty, because everyone was annoyed by him sometimes.

Jill Johnston: I don't feel guilty because I didn't have enough to do with him.

Chuck Close: Sometimes the phone calls came when you really didn't want one. Or send a drawing on to someone else and having to go to the post office became an obligation.

Jill Johnston: What you're saying sounds like he's incredibly lonely, like he was reaching out all the time.

Mark Bloch: I think that was part of his work, though...

Jill Johnston: He lived alone.

Mark Bloch: ...the isolation.

Chuck Close: Yeah. I think it was a ritual. I mean, the fact that... I mean, everyone can have a xerox machine. They're incredibly cheap. But he liked to walk to the post office and put coins in a coin-operated xerox machine.

Mark Bloch: By the way, I think he was the first person to do that, to use the first coin-operated xerox machines in his work. Can anyone think of anyone who did it before Ray?

Knight Landesman: Do you think about him every day, Mark?

Mark Bloch: Yeah as a matter of fact I do. Especially lately. I find a real emptiness exists. And I've talked to other people about this. I used to walk down the street and I'd find something on the street and it would make me laugh. I'd pick it up and I'd send it to Ray. Now I don't know what to do with that stuff. I don't know whether to bother picking it up or what.

Knight Landesman: Chuck, do you find yourself thinking about him even more now that he's dead?

Chuck Close: When the phone rings, every time, for a split second, I think it may be Ray. It's very sad.

Knight Landesman: Many of our listeners maybe haven't seen Ray's work but it often involved language, yes? I'll ask you, Mark, maybe you know it best. Did it always involve language?

Mark Bloch: Nearly always. Sometimes there was language underneath the visual stuff. He'd cut stuff up and recycle it. So yes, I'd say a large portion of it.

Charlie Finch: Thanks to all the guests. I'm sure Ray would have loved it. Maybe somewhere he's listening to it.

Transcribed from live radio broadcast on WBAI's Artbreaking, hosted by Charlie Finch. Portions reprinted from Coagula Art Journal #18.

above copied from :

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

IN THE BEGINNING IS THE WORD: An Anthropological History of Correspondence Art, Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz

The doctrine of divine revelation could perhaps be nominated as the first instance of correspondence art – air mail and on a cosmological scale. If one is not religiously inclined, wait for the first faint scratchings of the famous featherless biped, man, for examples of this art. While it is likely that at least some of the Paleolithic cave paintings included messages of this-kind-of-mastodon-went-thataway variety one must however admit that a loose definition of the role of the postal service is intrinsic to these examples. In the case of the cave painting, for example, the message was only received if the receiver traveled to the site of the correspondence. This as efficient, considering the status of the postal service in that period, and perhaps catalyzed the socializing impulses as well.

Other examples of “correspondence art” also occur in the Paleolithic period. Anthropologists are generally fond of explaining real systems by referring to unreal or past ones. This practice can be peculiarly enlightening. Paleolithic man, the Great Hunter par excellence, was fond of recording messages on bits of bone and stone lying about the cave. Contemporary research utilizing careful microscopic analyses reveals that what appeared at the casual glance to be mere scratches, are in fact careful notational systems. These analyses validate a longstanding anthropological precept that human cognition and perception evolved concomitantly with the need to communicate. The structural patterns of early human cognition are revealed through the messages, computations and symbols employed by Paleolithic man. These notations were at the same time are and codified computation – portable packages recording information based on the myriad inductive insights that a small but brainy creature needed to survive in a world that was cold, bizarre, and full of huge animals.

Artful delineations have thus been a medium of message exchange for at least 35,000 years. The delicate tracery of Paleolithic circles and scratches has been analyzed to show that it represents not idles doodles, but calendrical and notational systems of a ritual and practical nature!

By the time of the Mesolithic period and later, the world population of hunters and gatherers had begun to increase. Group interrelationships evolved as the concept of meaningful territoriality gained economic credence. The “us” and “them” ideology contributed enormously to the increased use of correspondence. The natural physical environment had become imbued with extractive, practical, and symbolic significance. The need for artful communication and exchange among groups stationed through space and time grew with the new uses of territory.

As all of these early populations were still hunters and gatherers, much of the same imagery in messages was perhaps understood across communities and groups. Man’s exploratory nature, itself a product of human evolution, manifested itself then as now through a search and appreciation of new media and cleaver ways to package messages. Special materials like shell, pigments, or bits of flavored obsidian came only from outside one’s present territory. Journeys of trade and exchange were made to negotiate for these scarce items. In those days, god, economics, and the need to create a better tool were still integrated in cognitive orientation. The exchange of economic and symbolic messages was ritualized and protected by sanction.

The reason for bothering to consider all this is simply because such examples illustrate that the essence of social recognition itself is tied to the sending of messages. The need to send a message or code a memory for one’s group is intimately tied to the experience of Self and Other, of Mine and Yours. Communication is a prerequisite for the creation of harmony and order in the real or symbolic manipulation and management of space, exchange, or resources. The ultimate in correspondence art -which becomes a kind of lifelong Project Piece – is the exchange of individuals between groups, often through exogamous marriage. Undoubtedly aesthetics played some role in this type of econosymbolic exchange as well. While it is not actually know whether gentlemen preferred blondes then (if ever), it is probable that a good strong pair of arms and legs were much admired. Art and life were inseparable, because a well-turned message or limb was more apt to be remembered and readily accepted.

Economic exchanges were realized as basic to survival and safety. The flourish of ritual often made this process sacred and helped to maintain an equilibrium during the dangerous aspects of exchange. Art historians, psychologists, and anthropologists have written reams intimating that the artist and the shaman were once the same individual and role, oftentimes with only a kind of dim recognition ritualized manipulations of messages were and are integers of the whole communication spectrum as it structures communitas.

Modern History and Correspondence Art

Myriad examples could be included in an extended history of mail art, but for the sake of brevity let us move on to the modern period. For some time now we have been living in what has noxiously been referred to as “complex societies” and in “urban conglomerates.” The postal service has advanced apace. Now it depends infrequently on domesticated animals, and encompasses the latest in aeronautical engineering and radio technology. Has this meant the death of correspondence art? On the contrary, even more imaginative efforts have recently been expended in that direction, since the need to communicate is still universal. This small review will not document examples of modern correspondence art, since the reader is probably aware of their amazing variety. Rather we shall turn to another anthropological number, the structural-functional analysis of the phenomena under investigation. In other words, the who, how, when, where, and why of mail art. In good contemporary scholastic style, we shall wander about unabashedly through the interdisciplinary fields of psychology, anthropology, and, briefly, neurophysiological dynamics. There is something here for everyone.

Who is Involved with Correspondence Art?

A definitive cross-cultural survey of this phenomenon would properly have to include a wide selection of practitioners ranging from the Kula Ring in Northern Melanesia to Sears, Roebuck & Company in America. In the former instance, the practitioners have already been subjected to a searching ethnographic study which revealed their vast complex of trade, magic, and pleasurable overseas travel with ceremonial exchange. The framework in which the message is expressed is the ritual exchange of handsome white shell armbands (mwali) and long red shell necklaces (soulava). Exchange is intertribal and interisland, and the rules of the correspondence game are rigid. Soulava move clockwise, and mwali are sent counterclockwise. No exceptions are permitted, because along with these much admired items, prized for their beauty and power, goes the exchange of economically scarce items and utilities (Malinowski, 1922).

In the second instance it must be at least considered that Sears, Roebuck & Company has consistently produced a good deal of Early American mail art, especially if one takes into consideration the sheer scope and frequency of aesthetic longings they incited in the hearts and minds of the pre-Skira, Abrams, and Braziller population.

Children have often sent mail art. Alone or in groups they send sidewalk messages in chalk, hand decorated May baskets, and spray paint communications (an art form especially highly developed among certain adolescent urban populations) to whomever and without the benefit of stamps. Children do make a calendric ritual use of the postal service when they send letters decorated with plaintive texts and Dubuffet-like depictions of toys which they hope the recipients, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, will shower upon them in a return exchange.

An international network of adults has recently inititated an unusual use of the postal system, which is to communicate messages of a non-utilitarian nature for the delight, intellectual stimulation, and appreciation of a select audience of recipients. This observations leads us to our next consideration.

What is Mail/Correspondence Art?

The slash (/) is a wonderful symbol created to cover contingencies implicating ambivalences, ambiguous inclusion, and/or sloppy thinking. In this case it pertains perhaps to all these. Yet, there is an intrinsic confusion as to whether or not correspondence art and mail art are the same phenomemon. As an anthropologist, the author would be in exceedingly bad form to take the narrow view. The Anthropological Forefathers fought and died for the Sacred Right of silencing chauvinistic arguments, often by referring to a perhaps exotic but undeniable instance among some outré group which would countermand any obviously distasteful view. The writer is exercising these rights of the initiate, but not without pointing out that even among contemporary semanticists this problem in definition is ambiguous.

The dictionary was selected as an impartial reference. Webster’s New World Dictionary, Elementary Edition, 1966, was chosen due to the unusual verve of its illustrations. Note the following:

mail, n. 1. letters, packages, etc. carried and delivered by a post office 2. the system of picking up and delivering letters, etc., postal system [Send it by mail.]

mail, n. armor for the body, made of small metal rings or overlapping plates so that it will bend easily.

Compare this with the following definition:

correspondence, n. 1. the fact of corresponding; agreement or sameness. 2. the
writing and receiving of letters [to engage in correspondence]. 3. the letters written or received [the correspondence on the Acme contract].

In the first example, “mail” is defined as something to wear or to send. In the second, both the fact of agreement or the sending and receiving of letters is mentioned. There you have it. It is obvious that in this paper the widest definition of the subject matter has been selected. This was done not because the author wished to play fast and loose with the subject, but rather as this approach seemed consistent with the discipline imposed upon the data.

(1) So the “what” of correspondence art has been seen to include a variety of media and activities from bits of stone, bone, shells, varieties of paper and cloth, paint, mud, ink, shouts, prayers, painted lines and images, as well as postal systems. In the beginning was the word, and the word was also line and picture.

(2) There is a second aspect to this category: namely art. There’s the rub; a rub which must include the rub of a paintbrush across parchment as well as the rubber stamp on a Xerox copy. Perhaps the Anthropology Game will guide us to develop an understanding of the problem of definition in this instance.

In the first place, a comparison of probable instances of “art” across cultures will illustrate the implausibility of “Art is…” Yet the frequency with which this form of definition is tried is amazing. It appears that “art” is actually an open category, and this calls for an extensive definition depending upon the situation at hand. One man’s art is another man’s kitsch. If you think the author is making all this up willy-nilly, a quick perusal of Wittgenstein should alert on to the seriousness of this problem (Wittgenstein, 1953: no. 65ff.). To stop here with a definition of art would leave us with an endless list of denotations in the definiendum, which is intellectually painful. This state often leads to a bad case of what noted psychologists have analyzed as “cognitive dissonance.”

Such related concepts as “taste,” “style,” “friend,” and “game” are difficult in the same way that art is problematic. Aesthetic-like ethical concepts are not purely descriptive or verifiable as are scientific terms. To define art is like defining “friend.” You must include an open-ended list of qualities and not seek closure, for that would distort the reality of the original phenomena under consideration our for special or honorific attention. This act implies a kind of value statement or appraisal of the object or phenomenon.

Such considerations lead us into deep water, but the trip may be worth the effort. Another curious thing is that concepts such as these are articulated or constituted out of the various qualities which themselves serve as criteria for the application of the concept in the first place. Please read that sentence twice. That is, one justifies the use of the appraisal “artful” by citing examples of qualities such as those which comprise the definition in one’s own thinking. These reasons form the rationale for and make the aesthetic judgment something other than an emotional statement. If you say to me that mail art is artful, you should not merely add, “because I like it.” You should be able – if called upon – to tell me which qualities justify this appraisal.

Furthermore, one can always contest your appraisal, and only the persuasiveness of the criteria which you summon could close down the debate. Art is a risky business, and art criticism the most esoteric of semantic skills and insight.

Assume that you assert that mail art is artful. If it were possible to ask each of you to reveal the criteria of your judgment about the artful qualities of mail art, your answers would structure a more objective understanding of the community of experience which you actually share. This exercise would also help us to learn which kinds of visual phenomena intrinsic to many examples of mail art are more successful in widely eliciting aesthetic responses; and the art form itself might presumably be improved by incorporating these criteria as suggested. If questions could be sent in a clockwise motion, and answers in a clockwise motion, and answers in a counterclockwise motion, a kind of Kula Ring or International Mail Art Expertise Exchange Bank could be established.

To avoid the Scylla of limiting definitions as well as the Charybdis of trying endlessly to list examples of what is considered as artful in categorizing the aesthetic, we might take a different stance. Let us try to activate the concept by pointing to what art does. Art communicates and arouses aesthetic experiences at the same time. That is, the artful must include some system of stimuli by object of phenomenon which elicits aesthetic responses in the receiver. For a long time in the Occident, thinkers about art were insistent upon defining art as “expression.” This may involve a kind of truism, and at the same time allows one to forget about the other end of the continuum which is the receiver or spectator. If one thinks about art as a kind of communication, then the sender, the message, and the receiver are necessarily included in on systemic relationship.

The author has dealt in greater with some of these issues elsewhere and will be brief here (Ravicz, 1974: passim). Across time and space art has raised man’s awareness of his physical, social, and psychological environment in a special way. It is man’s way of saying to himself, “look at this and consider its meaning.”

Art succeeds in raising man’s awareness by (1) selecting a medium and a message about some aspect of the environment (perceptive as well as proprioceptive); and (2) phrasing or structuring stimuli in such a way that their reception is special, that is, aesthetic.

What arouses aesthetic experiences in the percipient varies as to content and style. This is why an anthropological or art historical attempt to compare the formal aspect of art creations across societies, without placing them carefully in their cultural context, is doomed to triviality or failure. Yet some of the same structural characteristics may be present cross-culturally. Research seems to indicate that aesthetic-arousing stimuli rest on being perceived novel, surprising, interesting, complex, and perhaps ambiguous, either singly or in combination (Berlyne, 1971). Color, sound, form, symbolic imagery, movement, words, and texture are ecological variables which are manipulated by artists to become the kind of stimuli which will elicit aesthetic experiences in those who attend to them. Since the background experience in part defines what is novel or interesting, not all set of stimuli as packaged by an artist will be equally stimulating or arousing to all percipients. The work of the artist is, on one hand, like play (to which art has sometimes been compared, as an imaginative manipulation of the self and the environment), and one the other hand like that of the ritual practitioner (who calls attention to social and psychological needs or imbalances, and ceremoniously works to their resolution through dramaturgical means) (Ravicz, 1974, loc. cit.).

Much of the success or failure of correspondence art depends then first upon the quality of its manipulation of the formal elements of a visual nature. Secondly, it depends upon the quality of the actual message of the communication itself. These are interrelated inextricably in this art form.

This directive must also entail a brief discussion of what is meant by the communication or message part of mail art. The literature on communication theory and semantics cannot be reviewed here, although like the driest of British novels, it contains the best dully writing in the world. Communication is a kind of ultimate element in social acts. Indeed, the prehistory in this article was meant to intimate that it is the social act par excellence upon which community itself is built. The prerequisites of successful communication are eidetic to the ground rules for human interrelationships.

Since all interaction depends upon predictability and planning, communication facilitates this through sharing a fund of meaning learned from past experience. Communication requires some balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. If the receiver can always predict what the next signal will be a state of redundancy obtains, and the receiver tunes out. A signal with no surprise will cease to be meaningful. A total absence of redundancy will leave the receiver without any power of predictability, however, and it will be impossible to establish the difference between noise and potential information.

Communication is the sending and receiving of information, and this requires some balance between the predictable and the unpredictable, that is, the stability of equilibrium. The balance between order and disorder is a prerequisite for communication and human behavior, or there would be no predictability and planning on the one hand, nor the possibility of change on the other.

Correspondence art as communication suddenly can be seen to be very complex social phenomenon. It has a double level of meaning and multi-level connotations. As communication, it must be comprised of messages, whether of symbols or words, striking a balance between redundancy and noise, and carrying real information. As art, it must be comprised of formal visual aspects which become stimuli capable of eliciting an aesthetic response. Formal visual elements and such aspects as color, form, texture, and kinesthetic involvement (opening, folding, or feeling), are as important as the semantic considerations of the words and images therein. This implies a complex packaging of cognitive and perceptual characteristics carefully selected and conjoined.

What is the When of Correspondence Art?

The answer here is remarkably and mercifully simple. Anytime the delivery systems and creative impulses of sender/receiver are operational.

What is the Where of Correspondence Art?

The answer here too is terse. The strictures of financial and geographical considerations and temporal limitations, along with the vagaries of the postal or other delivery systems must be considered to define the parameters of this category.

What is the Why of Correspondence Art?

Here we shall not escape so lightly, “why” being one of the favorite bastions of an author in he face of a semi-captive audience.

To a social scientist, nothing which is patterned in human can be considered as accidental or spurious. Social patterns incite abstruse investigations for precedents and concomitants of the patterned activity, hoping o gain a better understanding of its meaning by analyzing its context. How does this come to bear on the contemporary manifestations of correspondence art?

(1) Correspondence has always entailed a call to communication, to shared discourse and experience. Man the Humner and Man the Technologue have some of the same fears and needs regarding human relationships and communication. Man has a fewer approaching dread of venturing too far from the known order of things, and delights in rearranging the familiar aspects of his ecological niche. The more predictable man’s environment becomes, the more free time he has to spend on non-essentials. But just let the environment become experientially redundant, and man is off on an exploratory frenzy: pushing, pulling, inventing, creating, rearranging, sending messages, thinking, dreaming, and communicating the results to his peers.

It seems that these two behavioral trends are reflected in the biological organization of the nervous system itself. The brain itself evolved attending to the delicate balance of nuances in the environment, whether of visual, aural or textural import. Indeed, man’s life depended upon his success in perceiving and interpreting environmental cues. The entire central nervous system is structured to cope with the sending and receiving of messages so that their perceptual, conceptual, and kinesthetic implications can be handled in almost infinite numbers. The brain itself is analogous to a communication network, the cybernetic nature of which utilizes computer-like processes for storing and maintaining coded units ready for retrieval and transmission. The ability to compare the stored and coded units first on the neurological level and then on the psychological level is basic to memory and learning. And, of course, learning is basic to prediction and making one’s way in the world.

When man moves toward a control and understanding of his environment, the trend toward an appreciation of organization and predictability predominates. When control over some aspect of the environment of oneself is lost, new methods are sought to change it or readapt. Old habits must be eliminated and/or the ecological niche redesigned. Man constantly reaffirms his biological and social values since they are intrinsic to survival on all levels. The work of art has long been one important way of dealing with the affirmation of the environment, or the creative change and destruction of it as well.

For example, during World War I and recently, the call to discourse represented in some art–centered activities appears similar in some respects. Although they are not the same, some correspondence art activities are reminiscent of the early data and lettriste use of form, word, and deliberate shock to create novel and surprising reactions. The data messages especially were full of the hatred of bourgeois pomposity, warmongering, and the negative aspects of technological profiteering. They also reacted against the widespread complicity among academics, politicians, and the wealthy to control the art world, and to restrict art to the sheltered environments which they considered as suitable. Culture had become Kultur. These dada and other artists selected the printed word a variety of media to communicate their messages. Among these media were: the printed word in a variety of publications; drama; performance; and a good deal of raucous pamphleteering. Messages were couched to epater le bourgeois, or to gain arousal –even disgust – through humor, satire, or the nonsensical. They attempted to create a community and a climate for reform.

Some similar motivations and characteristics live on in correspondence/mail art today. This is not to say that these analogies represent the same phenomena, however. Correspondence art of today is less a series of guidebook manifestos in negation, and more a multifaceted attempt to invoke this sense of distance by using the familiar in unfamiliar ways. The use of the entire postal system in a kind of gigantic subversion of its bureaucratic capabilities is also as stake. To deal with the replicable and impersonal in an aesthetic and personal way is one important method and goal of correspondence art. To communicate new ideas for consideration through the novel use of words and images is another. The ideas are often of a sociotropic or a critical nature.

(2) Correspondence art represents a call to creativity; a throwing down of the gauntlet to innovate with the givens of the urban environment in a time when the logistics of personal communication have become monumental problems in time a when the and geography. It calls to the person through a personal touch of line and form. It tries to hurl a message across miles and to shape the intervening space into a path of conscious appreciative energy. Through the work of concepts and imagination, it creates a community, not of contiguous habitats in the traditional sense, nor of true believers in the religious sense, but of cohorts in the literal sense of groups moving and working together.

(3) Sometimes it seems as if correspondence art is like a ritual call to game or play. It embodies the impetus to innovate, to toy with the shared meanings and the formal aspects of visual stimuli. Mail art may embody a system of suggestions, commands, or ideas about ideal comportment in a world of urban networks and media noise. It may deal predominantly with humor or fanciful narrative. By focusing creative energy on the redundancies of contemporary life, mail art seeks to claim noise and transform it into meaningful information.

(4) And finally, correspondence/mail art is also a part of contemporary awareness that the artist and the recipient are acting in a kind of complicity to erase the distance between life and art. It is a call to deal with everyday language and the common image. Inasmuch as it deals with words to be seen and images to be read, it is unusual in the western tradition of art. It stands as its own visual metaphor. Mail art is open to anyone. It is consistent with a wider human tradition of art which is close to community and a part of daily life.

When art and life art separate, it would seem to signify the real or symbolic death of each. The fullest exercise of man’s perceptual and conceptual capabilities is consistent with the innovativeness and creativeness of art as communication.

Since the earliest scratches on bone and painting in caves, art was usually a community matter, a structuring of stimuli calculated to raise man’s awareness of his environment so that is could be reappraised and valued. Rather than being distant from life and reality, art functioned to call attention to it.

Throughout must of the world, the artist is also a farmer, curer, trader, wife, mother, fisherman, and so on. What art no longer represented a reality which was basic, art retaliated. In this case, art retaliated by taking the environment of empty words and images and the invisible impersonal network of postal systems and reshaping them to the communication needs of a group which enjoys them.

In the beginning was the word, and the word is still with us as our basic medium of exchange. Correspondence art endows this medium with visual concreteness and dimensions which make an aesthetic appreciation of their meaning imperative. Long live correspondence art!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Excerpt from "New Scientific Tools for the Arts," Ralph K. Potter

Color-Music Attempts

The story of color-music can fill a volume in itself. (2) It had vague beginnings in the time of Leonardo da Vinci and there are some bits of evidence that it may have been in the minds of Aristotle and of others before his time. But the first specific proposal of a color-music was apparently by a French Jesuit priest, Louis Bertrand Castel. Father Castel made the proposal in 1720, and attempted to build instruments for such an art during later years. The next experimenter to carry his efforts far was an American artist named Bainbridge Bishop, who lived in Essex County, New York Bishop began experiments with color-organs in 1875 and built several during the years following. The showman, P. T. Barnum, was interested in Bishop's experiments and exhibited one of his instruments in the Barnum Museum in New York City in 1881. Another was installed in Barnum's elaborate residence in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1893 a professor of art at Queen's College in London, Alexander Wallace Rimington, patented and constructed a large and complicated color-organ. It made use of fourteen electrical arcs at a time when it was considered something of a feat to operate one such source of light. Rimington had what might be regarded as the ideal combination to make development of the tools for such an art a success. While a recognized artist, he had been educated in engineering and in addition he was a courageous experimenter with the means necessary to carry on extensive undertakings. He gave both private and public demonstrations in London and shipped his equipment in a special vehicle for demonstrations in other cities.

The endeavors of Castel, Bishop, and Rimington all ended in disappointment and frustration. When the novelty had worn thin their audiences became impatient and even sarcastic.

During recent years there have been many other attempts to produce tools for a visible music to combine with existing audible music, but they also have failed to realize that objective. Perhaps best known of recent experimenters in the field of projected color is Thomas Wilfred, who has given numerous demonstrations of his manually controlled projector, the "Clavilux," both here and abroad.(3) Wilfred's first interest is in "a silent and independent art of light" and the demonstrations of his "Lumia" are normally without audible accompaniment. He has, however, tried the combination of his art with music. At a demonstration performance in Carnegie Hall, New York City in 1926, he played the "Clavilux" with the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by Leopold Stokowski. But such attempts have not received the applause given his silent demonstrations and a recent discussion of objectives for "Lumia" contains no mention of a possible combination with music. (4)

Despite the negative results of past efforts to combine what has come to be known as "color-music" with the familiar sound-music, two developments of recent years suggest that such a combination is far from impracticable. On the contrary, its prospects look better than ever before. These developments reveal the reasons for past failures and one of them indicates a logical starting point for research in this promising area.

Abstract Films

One of the two encouraging developments mentioned above is called the "abstract film". While the motion picture was still a scientific toy a few abstractionists began to consider the possibility of adding a time dimension to their art. In 1914 a cubist painter of Paris, Leopold Survage, was the first to propose an abstract film in an article entitled "Le Rhythme colore." (5) Survage expected to use colored film techniques, then in the laboratory stage. Synchronized sound was only a dream of the scientists at the time and apparently Survage did not contemplate musical accompaniment. He painted a series of key designs for a film to be called "Colored Rhythm," but the project was interrupted by World War I and never resumed.

Following the war several artists, including a Swedish painter, Viking Eggeling, and a German film artist Hans Richter (now of New York) began experiments with silent black and white abstractions. Also Walter Ruttmann, a German film producer and artist, created a series of hand-colored abstract films between 1921 and 1925. Development of abstract films had paralleled that of the animated cartoon and both were profoundly affected by the introduction of synchronized sound around 1925-28. Film animationists soon learned that visible and audible movements had to be closely related. If they were so related the combination held together satisfactorily; if not the effects were disastrous. In other words, associated movement could provide a strong unifying bond. Artists experimenting with abstract films were also quick to recognize this unifying effect of associated movement and the result was what might be called a "dancing abstraction," more recent versions of which are probably familiar to most of us in sections of Disney's "Fantasia."

The well-known film artist, Oskar Fischinger, now of Hollywood, created a series of such colored abstractions moving to the rhythm of accompanying music following 1928, and his work has had a considerable effect upon the trend of these experiments. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced one of his compositions under the title, "Optical Poem," in 1937 and he was associated with the Disney production of "Fantasia" during the initial stage. In and following 1935 film artist Mary Ellen Bute and photographer Theodore Nemeth of New York collaborated in creating several abstractions, two of which were shown at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. At about the same time a British film artist, Len Lye, now of New York, produced a series of interesting dancing abstractions by hand-coloring techniques.

During recent years many young artists have experimented with these dancing abstractions. Representative of this younger group is Norman McLaren whose films have been distributed by the National Film Board of Canada. Most of his compositions are hand-drawn in color directly upon the master film. He starts with a film record of the music to be used as accompaniment. On this film, with grease pencil, he marks accents and movements and constructs what amounts to a score for the "visual." Using this as a guide he then draws the visuals frame by frame on another film.

Forms used in both past and present abstract films are, in general, much like those employed in still abstractions. They include a wide variety of geometrical figures, meaningless shapes that fall outside this classification, and sometimes a mass of more or less accidental detail that approaches surface texture. Production techniques cover the gamut of those employed in representational film animation.

Incidentally, these dancing abstractions offer attractive possibilities for art-science study, but the purpose of discussing them here is only to indicate that in them abstract color-form and audible music are associated far more acceptably than in any past color and sound-music combination. The reason is to be found in the associated visible and audible movement, and research seems almost certain to show no other bond can approach movement in this role.

"Visible Music"

Second of the two developments mentioned earlier as encouraging has grown out of research in the scientific field of acoustics. It is concerned with what is known as "sound portrayal."(6) When the wave shape of a spoken word is drawn out in a wriggly line by the familiar oscillograph, little information concerning that word is conveyed to the eye. But if the speech sounds are taken apart and the tonal components spread out in the way the cochlea of the inner ear analyzes them, the result is revealing. One may learn to read patterns of speech produced in this fashion. Such sound-to-sight translations of speech have come to be known as "visible speech."

By similar methods sounds may be used to form motion picture patterns that, when accompanied by the original sounds, exhibit close audivisual unison. Such motion pictures of music have been demonstrated on various occasions (Before the Acoustical Society in New York City on May 10, 1946 by the author, and since then many demonstrations of a film called "Action Pictures of Sound"). There is nothing beautiful about these scientific motion pictures of music and yet they demonstrate one very significant thing. The visible display seems to belong with the sound accompaniment. Without effort one feels he is seeing "visible music." The screen display could hardly be imagined as anything else.

The audivisual unison in this combination of visible and audible music is much closer than that in the best of the dancing abstractions because the dimensions of the visible music are confined to and correlated with the pitch and loudness dimensions of music received via the ear. Consequently movements in the two correlated dimensions are completely consistent as seen and heard. A question may arise here as to whether it is realistic to talk of sounds as moving. Actually audible movement is directly comparable with visible movement when we consider patterns of stimulation in the brain. Pitch change corresponds to visible movement across the field of view and loudness change to visible movement toward and away from the observer. Helmholtz suggested the reality of sound movement toward the end of the past century, (7) and it is recognized by modern scientists working in the sensory area.(8)

Most artists who have attempted to combine abstractions and music join in a condemnation of unison between screen display and sound. They say, in effect, and quite correctly from a communications point of view, that two art messages in unison say the same thing and therefore are no better (and perhaps even less desirable) than one alone. In relation to the problem of a combined visible and audible music this view neglects one all-important point. There can be no completely intimate visible and audible music until audivisual unison is achieved. Unison is the essential starting point. There is apparently no way to realize expressive departures from unison without first learning how to realize unison itself.

(end excerpt)


(2) Klein, A. B., Coloured Light. London 1937.

(3) Encycopedia Britannica, 14th ed., Vol. 21, p. 290

(4) "Light and the Artist." Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 5, No. 4, June 1947, p. 247-255

(5) Les Soirees de Paris, Vol. 3, July 1914, p. 426

(6) Potter, R. K., "Visible Patterns of Sound." Science, Vol. 102, Nov. 9, 1945, pp. 463-470

(7) Helmholtz, Tonenempfindungen, tr. A. J. Ellis. London 1885, p. 252

(8) Adrian, E. D. The Physical Background of Perception. London 1946, p. 52

First published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. X, No. 2, December, 1951

above copied from:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Transformative Technologies, Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Is the avant-garde dead, defunct, an attitude belonging to a past whose bearings on the present have been lost once and for all? Or does it always await us, coming toward us from a future whose shape is as yet undetermined and open? The first option seems inevitable if we link the idea of the avant-garde to modernism as it exploded on the scene in the 1920s and 30s, and if we see it as a defined and historically circumscribed style with a definite set of questions that can surely no longer be ours within the space of postmodernity, where the artistic gestures of the early twentieth century seem hopelessly naïve. But if we try to detach the impetus of the avant-garde from what has paradoxically enough become its heritage, if we unearth its problems rather than its solutions, then we could perhaps incline towards the second option: the avant-garde is neither alive nor dead, but always there, virtually, waiting to be redefined and reinvented anew.

On the level of historiography, the advent of postmodernity above all brought about a (perhaps paradoxical) reinvigoration of the writing of modernism's history. If we have somehow detached ourselves from modernism and modernity (concepts whose earlier evident mutual implication has also been questioned), then all writing of history becomes an acute and normative investment in the present. It tells us not only where we came from and how it all began, but is just as much meant to stake out a course for the future and to prescribe certain acts and practices as more relevant, contemporary (in the sense of being cum, "with," the movement of time), and legitimate than others.

Surveying this literature with any exhaustiveness is an impossible task. I will present three different ways of perceiving the problem of the avant-garde in order to put my own argument in perspective. Two of them, Matei Calinescu's and Peter Bürger's, are fundamentally negative, whereas the third, Hal Foster's, attempts to rethink the issue of the future of the past in a new and radical way and thus prepares for my own (modest) proposal for a redefinition of the avant-garde.

Three perspectives
In his Five Faces of Modernity (1977), Matei Calinescu provides us with a detailed analysis of the historical vicissitudes of the term "avant-garde," from the French Revolution and the first use of the term with reference to art in the circle around Henri de Saint-Simon—where it denoted a fusion of artistic, scientific, and political radicality under the banner of the spearhead-artist—through its shifting uses in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. What Calinescu discerns in this process, however, is a conflict between modernism, where a viable and productive connection to the past is preserved, and the avant-garde, which attempts to disrupt the concept of art and its institutional framework. What began in the early nineteenth century as a quest for a constructive synthesis ends a century later with a furious negativity: Beginning as a promise and ending as almost a parody, avant-gardism constitutes an inner derailing of modernism and Calinescu does not regret its eventual demise and fade-out.

This rather negative interpretation, its finely nuanced analyses of many historical documents notwithstanding, still leaves us with the question of the status of the avant-garde in the present.1 As is often case in this type of analysis, Calinescu starts off with a kind of saturation of the concept under scrutiny—its essential variations, negative and positive, have been played out, the case is closed, and the owl of Minerva spreads her wings in the dusk of historiographical discourse.

For Peter Bürger, the genealogical parameters of analysis are rather different but his final analysis will remain just as negative as Calinescu's. In his pathbreaking Theorie der Avant-garde (1974), he situates the his-torical avant-garde (exemplified for Bürger by movements like Surrealism, Constructivism, or Duchamp's readymade) against the background of a gradually developing æsthetic autonomy where art only refers to itself. This was already theoretically formulated by Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790) but reached its full-blown form in the last decades of the nineteenth century in Symbolism and l'art pour l'art, with Mallarmé's poésie pure as the most obvious case. The historical avant-garde attempts to break with this situation and sublate the institution "art," not just to criticize the inadequacy of some particular medium (painting, poetry, etc.), but to reconnect art and life in a program for a new æsthetico-political life-world. Needless to say, this project failed (and some of its proponents paid bitterly for this, in many cases with their own lives), but its consequences for posterior history are limitless, since it instituted what we could call the limitless expansion and solidification of art as an institution. The historical avant-garde failed in a tragic way, but the neo-avant-garde movements that Bürger traces from the late fifties and onwards failed (or perhaps even succeeded) in another way that he calls parodic (the schema for this analysis is derived from Marx's Louis Bonaparte's 18th brumaire). The revolt is no longer aimed at art as institution, but now takes place inside the safe haven of these now fully developed institutions—the barriers between art and life are torn down inside art itself, and the neo-avant-garde is at best naïve, at worst cynical.

Bürger's model (which is obviously much more nuanced and richly detailed than comes across in this brief summary) might, however, lead to a kind of post-historical quietism. The neo-avant-garde, and with it all of the present, is condemned to an endless self-deception, and Bürger occa-sionally seems to retreat to a Hegelian position: What remains is not the produc-tion of new works, but an æsthetico-philosophical reflection on past works. At the end of the book, Bürger talks about the "limitless availability" of artistic means today, which puts into question the possi-bility of a coherent æsthetic theory in the sense it has come down to us from Kant and Hegel to Adorno. Neither art nor æsthetic theory seems to have any options left but to contemplate its own demise in the increasing leveling and repressive desublimation of late capitalist culture.

In the third perspective, proposed by Hal Foster in his Return of the Real (1996), there is still hope for a return of the avant-garde, although the sense of "return" will here render the historical evidence more complex. Against Bürger, Foster argues that we should not hypostatize any given moment as the origin of a full-blown avant-garde in relation to which all subsequent "neo" movements would be mere repetitions or representations. In fact, the moment of the avant-garde is only constituted, Foster argues, by being repeated and "comprehended," as it were, in a later phase. The major piece of evidence is of course Marcel Duchamp, who only becomes the historically decisive "Duchamp" he is for us through a series of re-readings and reappraisals begun in the late 50s and extending up to the present day. In this sense, nothing is ever fully "there," nothing is given at once together with all of its sense. The law of history becomes a deferred story, constantly told in a retroactive way.

Foster paints this rather more complex picture by way of Freud's conception of "deferred action" (Nachträglichkeit), especially as this is (re)interpreted in Lacan's 1964 seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The traumatic encounter with the Real, Lacan argues, can only be a missed encounter; we always arrive too late or too early, and the Real can only be that which returns through repetition. In the same way, the trauma caused by the irruption of the avant-garde in the early twentieth century can only be understood and its sense fully unfolded within the neo-avant-garde.

Against Bürger's rather simplistically linear model, which always perceives temporal sequence as causal and the second moment as straightforwardly derived from the first, Foster's argument is a good one. The problem is, however, that he himself hypostatizes another moment, namely the 60s and its classical conceptual strategies, as the moment of a true critical retrieval of the historical avant-garde. Even though this is not intended by Foster, his argument seems to produce the same reading of our present as Bürger's did in relation to the 60s; the moment of truth is always already past and it becomes difficult to grasp the present. Would it be possible for Foster to argue that current artistic forms "repeat" and "comprehend" those of the 60s without stretching the argument too far? He never really addresses the issue of how, indeed if, the structure of deferred action extends into our present, and perhaps this is because such an argument tends to condemn the present to a negative afterlife.

Art's sense of historicity indeed seems weak today, and most of the arguments which have propelled the avant-garde throughout modernity—a powerful historical logic premised in part on medium-specific self-criticism tending towards formal breakthroughs—seem exhausted. If there is radicality today, it is no doubt located in what Foster terms "horizontal" as opposed to "vertical" strategies, which use art as a means for intervention into specific debates and pay less attention to the dimension of art historical mediation and the inner workings of representation and of the "signifier." If we remain within vertically reflexive self-criticism, art will continue to speak of its own history and inevitably end up in an ivory tower of formalism—but if we opt for pure horizontality, we will succumb to the inverse illusion of immediacy and transparency. To take us out of this dilemma, Foster proposes the notion of "parallax" as a way to keep both of these—equally necessary—dimensions in balance. This seems however more like a way of rephrasing and circumscribing the problem than solving it. Avant-garde temporality seems exhausted and we enter into a kind of "weak thought," as Gianni Vattimo calls it, where we can only witness with melancholy (or delight, depending on one's position) the dispersal of the idea of the avant-garde.

The time of the virtual
We noted how Foster in his critique of Bürger's linear model of history and its latent Hegelianism proposed his own model of history derived from an analogy with the notion of deferred action in Freud and Lacan, where the trauma need not be (and in its most radical version cannot be) present at first, but is only registered afterwards, in repetition. Faced with the objection that modeling history on consciousness is too traditional a move, Foster turns the tables and proposes that we should use this objection as a spring-board and conceive of history on the basis of the most radical and sophisticated model of consciousness available. Thus we find Freud and Lacan usurping the place of Hegel.

It may be allowed to ask just how radical this displacement is, especially given Lacan's well-known dependence on Hegel. In fact, we might find ourselves locked in an inverted dialectic (which is of course Hegel once more), where each new moment is understood as a delayed proxy of another moment, a past reconstructed and "comprehended" (one senses the closeness to Hegel's Aufhebung in this word) in repetition. Perhaps we should attempt, especially when the idea of the avant-garde is at stake, to experiment with other ideas of time and experience more radically dissociated from dialectics. If Foster's analysis delivers us from one kind of historicism, it may lead us into another, namely a kind of infinite analysis (which also threatened Freud), where we will live in an always displaced present. When we ask the question of the avant-garde in historical retrospective, the answer seems pre-programmed: The "historical" avant-garde is, by definition, always on its way to exhaustion, even though it may be repeated and resituated and give rise to diabolically complex forms of reception and to "infinite analyses" where the transfer between analyst and patient trigger ever new problems. Put this way, the question opens onto an abyssal complexity—repetitions of repetitions, an originary scene which recedes ever further back while also insisting to be reproduced in the historian's own discourse as the mirage of the origin—but never onto the question of the present, let alone the question of the future.

But what could be the avant-garde's relation to time if we abandon both the cumulative time of Bürger and negative-dialectical time of Foster? Other conceivable temporalities could be the time of deprivation and withdrawal, which Jean-François Lyotard has attempted to unearth in Kant's theory of the sublime, or, what I will propose here: the time of the virtual. This idea has been put forth by Gilles Deleuze, partly based on a reading of Bergson but also going far beyond this original context, and has been picked up by, for instance, John Rajchman in his recent book Constructions (1998). The time of the virtual would be that which doubles the present with another untimely time, creating, as it were, a swarm of divergent possibilities; or as Rajchman puts it, "quite small 'virtual futures,' which deviate from things known, inserting the chance of indetermination where there once existed only definite probabilities." The question of the virtual would bear upon what is set free in the present, on new modes of thought becoming possible in the blank interstices of the present as it is wrested open— not just toward an art historical past, but towards a much more indeterminate field of forces, technologies, and social movements. Thought within this time of such a virtuality, the question of the avant-garde need not be posed within the history of forms or styles, since this is what immediately makes it old (awakening the demon of precursors) or turns it into a cynical quest for the "new," which turn out to be the same thing.

A problem with such a re-definition is that the very word "avant-garde" has always tended to imply linear conceptions, a troop advancing ahead, going beyond a front line stretched out before us in a terrain that is essentially already known. Already in the first century A.D., Frontinus's Stratagemata established a close connection between warfare and Euclidean geometry that has remained in our imaginary. Perhaps we need to think otherwise, the art of war having undergone tremendous changes and no longer relating to surface battles with perceptible front lines, spatially iso-lated fragments, and massings of force. Why not rethink the issue of the avant-garde based on telewars ("war in the age of intel-ligent machines," as Manuel De Landa would have it) and current models of con-flict, with the battlefield as a function of global conflicts and much of the actual contact taking place over immense dis-tances, dislocalizing the space-time of the experiencing body? This would be a multi-dimensional space, with other and highly variable geometries, differently organized surfaces, times, and velocities, all overlaid in a new way. In such a war-space, there is no obvious "ahead," no clear avant or arrière since what counts as the terrain is itself a function of strategy. The question would then be whether the very concept "avant-garde" here loses all pertinence, or if something else could be thought in this concept (and on what grounds could we be denied this right?). If we suppose that such new conceptual connections can be forged, then the sense of directionality would here be very different, just as the connection to a surrounding milieu would require a new permeability and topology. No matter how difficult this is to think, the avant-garde would no longer be thought of as advanc-ing into a terrain ahead of us and negating what lies behind it, but as the actualization of a different type of space, the kind of "smooth" space defined by Deleuze and Guattari in relation to the nomadic war machine, irreducible to the "striated" and sedentary space of the imperial war machine.

On the basis of such notions, which no doubt need to be defined much more clearly, I believe another formula ought to be tested: not "what is" or "what was" the avant-garde, but what could it become? If this still involves historical repetition, re-actualization, etc., then we need to think of this as a repetition coming from a still undetermined future. As Foster says, we may repeat in order to free ourselves from a present felt to be stagnant, but it should be noted that we do so to free ourselves from both the past and the present by confronting those unknown powers that approach us from the future (as Deleuze would say, the future is not of the order of the possible, where actualization takes place in the image of the idea, but of the virtual, a becoming which doubles history with a stratum of the "counter-historical," a dimension of the "untimely").

To think the question of the avant-garde in this way would imply seeing the devel-opment of art in its different historical con-stellations as a way of acting on extra- artistic materials (technologies, social structures) which are themselves in con-stant mutation. The unfolding of the "histor-ical" avant-garde would in this sense by no means just constitute a negative response to the solidification of the institution "art" (as Bürger would have it), but rather a way of capturing, reconfiguring, and prolonging other movements in society. The autonomy of art lies precisely in its capacity to cap-ture its outside as an inside, and vice versa. The avant-garde is the name of this trans-formation, this capture whereby the respec-tive values of the inside (the æsthetic) and the outside (that which is acted upon) both change. And the important thing is the transformation, not the name.

What would be those new forces that art attempts to capture and appropriate? With due precaution, we could perhaps point to a few of these domains. The most pervasive fact throughout the history of the various avant-garde movements, as well as in the present, is the force of technological change. Each fundamental technological mutation seems to release a corresponding transformative artistic energy. An example would be Walter Benjamin's constructivist appraisal of industrial reproduction technologies and the possibility of new and "non-auratic" forms of art outside of the confines of classical æsthetics. In Benjamin, these possibilities seem to be deduced almost immediately out of the technology itself (which was also one of the charges made against him by Adorno). Thirty years later, Conceptual Art (and to some extent Pop Art as well) was to be propelled by similar motifs, less emphatically but also with an unmistakably utopian flavor. In the age of mass-mediatized reproduction, art was to be made accessible to everyone. As a dematerialized flow of information, it was to contribute to radical democracy, if not in relation to real economies, then at least within the symbolically-charged sphere of the production and circulation of artworks. These hopes were of course just as vain as Benjamin's, but perhaps we should focus less on shattered dreams than on the kind of movements they make possible—an explosion of new artistic gestures and strategies that we without doubt see as "avant-garde," and that we are still working through today (perhaps also "repeating" and "comprehending" in Foster's sense).

That today's information technologies release the same transformative energies is clear. The utopias—and the naïvetés—are analogous, as are the visions of a new "anarchism" predicated upon the dissolution of the system producer-consumer, the leveling of æsthetic hierarchies, the new metaphysics of networks, and an economy less and less focused on the materiality of the consumer object. (In fact, in their emphasis on the commodity as sign or mark, many models of the current economy that take as their framework the semiotic-psychic political economy of the sign rather than classical political economy seem to come straight out of Jean Baudrillard's early work. These theories had an almost overwhelming presence in art discourse in the 80s, but were dismissed by many as too apocalyptic and dystopian. Today they seem revived almost in the guise of normality.) An artistic avant-garde—regardless of whether it would accept such a term, or perhaps precisely because it would reject it scornfully—will no doubt insert itself into this sphere of circulation, as if both to destabilize and accelerate it, just as the avant-garde in the early twentieth century broke down traditional æsthetic form in order to adapt us to a new techno-industrial plateau (the analysis of which has been undertaken in great detail by Manfredo Tafuri). But before this is determined and made recog-nizable as critical intervention, submission, ironic complicity, or something else, it is above all a place of indeterminacy, a place where art changes, and a zone of temporary formlessness which gives rise to new modes of construction, subjectivity, and experience. On an even more speculative level, we could add recent developments in biology and biotechnology. Here we encounter the limit of traditional humanism, where the form "Man" appears more dubious than ever (as was already presaged by Michel Foucault some three decades ago). The possible convergence between a biotech-nical and informational paradigm will surely have tremendous impact on the arts, some of which have been charted by Katherine Hayles in relation to literature in her recent How We Became Posthuman (1999). A visionary forerunner would here be the exhibition Les immatériaux curated by Jean-François Lyotard at the Pompidou Center in 1985, which dealt with the new sense of "immaterials," the transformation of materiality and physicality into waves, flows, and packages of information. It is surely in this dimension that we should seek the "sublime" and the "unpresentable" that Lyotard (in his famous 1983 essay) claimed constitutes the underlying momentum of the avant-garde, and not exclusively in what made up that particular essay's examples.2

These technological mutations have to be understood as both emanating from and reacting upon the social changes resulting from multinational capitalism in its globalized phase (which was pointed out by Fredric Jameson in his classic essay on the cultural logic of late capitalism, written the same year as Lyotard's essay on the sublime). Today we are witnessing the rapid dissolution of an Occidental art historical narrative that has been at the basis of most theories of the dialectical movement of form and materials. This means not only the end of the traditional dialectic between mass culture and modernism but also of the mantra of the "dissolution" of the border between them, as it has been diagnosed, cherished, and feared since the Frankfurt School of the 30s. What we require is a new analysis of the situation and its possibilities after the breaking up of the mono-cultures that previously contained the high-low dialectic and whose downfalls mark the end of the idea of a unified public space, now mutating into proliferating sub-systems. Criticism, debates, and patterns of publishing will change as intellectual communities become less rooted in language, place, or nation. It would, of course, be erroneous to think that entities like the nation-state simply would disappear. As Saskia Sassen has demonstrated, these changes bring about a restructuring of the state apparatus, with new forms of centrality, control, and monitoring in a space of "electrotecture" characterized by new interfaces of physicality and informatics and by new urban forms and trajectories.

As Sassen argues, decentralization and centralization do not form exclusionary opposites, but rather complementary poles in a new world system that will not be more democratic than before, just characterized by new conflicts. To remain within the art world, these changes are reflected in the formation of a new elite of "curators." It would be false to downplay this change by pointing to the long tradition of museum curating. Historical analogies will not help us chart this territory because the function is new: not to preserve the old, but to organize and systematize the production of new things and symbols in the circulation of the art world. The curatorial function expresses the increasing professionalization of this world, and its increasing emphasis on self-regulatory mechanisms. The system of biennials, triennials, etc., indicates the extent to which the institution produces goods meant for internal circulation and evaluation, and dispenses with the classical notion of an "audience." (To some, this may in fact look like a perverse realization of Kosuth's 1969 statement that, like science, advanced experimental art does not have an audience since it is primarily directed towards other artists.)

It would be easy to provide moralistic comments on this situation, but it would also be misleading. There is no reason to see the loss of earlier functions as purely catastrophic, as if our capacity to perceive and grasp works of art would be uniquely tied to certain historical modes of production and distribution. Older systems of selection and presentation—from the gradual demise of jury systems and the birth of the avant-garde in its various attempts to create new systems, both democratic and elitistic—are just as much or as little repressive as current systems. Today's avant-garde faces the formidable task of inventing new situations, modes of production, and reception. Such an avant-garde no doubt exists, and it will be both like and unlike the one that once appeared as the "historic" avant-garde at the beginning of the previous century. Those outer forc­es—technologies, economies, and power relations—that it works over, appropriates, and transforms are themselves in constant movement.

1. It should be noted, however, that Calinescu systematically disregards most movements from the early nineteenth century when an avant-garde position—even though the word may not have been used as such—implied a constructive renewal and reconsidering of artistic practice rather than mere destruction.
2. The emphasis on Barnett Newman has done great damage to Lyotard's argument, since it gives the impression that the sublime would have an essential connection to certain late modernist painting, which it does not. The question Newman relays to us is that of the now ("What is now?" "Is it happening?" etc.) and even though for Lyotard these questions are registered in Newman's vertical "zips" of color, these questions need not be inscribed in these particular forms for us.

Sven-Olov Wallenstein is a philosopher and an art critic living in Stockholm. He teaches art theory at the University College of Arts and Crafts and philosophy at the University of Södertörn, both located in Stockholm. He is co-founder of the Art Node Foundation in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Cabinet.

Copied from, issue 2 "Mapping Conversations", Spring 2001