Reconstruction 9.2 (2009)

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Introduction / Alan Clinton & John Sundholm


<1> This special issue of Reconstruction began with a feeling of both exhaustion and excitement. The exhaustion concerned our feeling that there has been an excessive amount of theorizing about the historical avant-garde that takes rather traditional forms. The most exciting prospect for us, by contrast, was the feeling that marginalized tradition of the “critical avant-garde" as practiced by figures such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin is now, more than ever, ready for a sustained exploration. This issue intends to be a small part of that exploration, one that realizes that the lessons of the vanguard arts can be applied to the practice of criticism and that, likewise, the most fascinating art of our time has taken on a certain critical edge, incorporating philosophy and politics in ways that create new attunements that may, hopefully, lead to revolutions in both thought and daily praxis. Key to this approach is the idea that theorization about a critical avant-garde might be best served through simulation rather than explanation, various experiments that act as both demonstration and speculation simultaneously. The idea was to find out about a critical avant-garde by performing it.

<2> Thus, it is fitting that this issue should begin with both a film and text by Tim Sharp (click on cover image for film), a Scotland-born artist and filmmaker based Vienna. Traveller’s Tales is a found footage film, originally a one and half minute long documentary stub of 35 millimetre film that Sharp has edited into a 13 minute long essayistic piece about representation – and in particular how the other has been displayed. The result is a documentary about documentary practice itself that is both critical and meditative. Using found objects, most often as a way of asserting the enchantment that exists in everyday life, is a staple of the historical avant-garde, but Sharp’s found footage is put to use as a philosophy of cinematic form. Furthermore, travelling is one of the fundamental metaphors of and means for reflection and thought. Travelling, and cinema about travel, are methods for leaving the established modes of a genre in order to interrogate other ways of knowing, or, seeing. Sharp offers of course no solution; instead he invites the viewer and the reader to take part in the journey and the tales being told. And as so often when severe interrogation is taking place, the act of addressing an object is transformed into the act of questioning yourself. The object is suddenly gazing back. The most dramatic image and shot – in a double sense – in Sharp’s film depicts a Tuareg loading his rifle that is pointing towards the one that is shooting the film. Accordingly Sharp ends his tales with writing: “>nothing>blue nothing>blue>empty blue video signal" and a plea for blurred images.

<3> The image, poetic or visual, is, in Gregory L. Ulmer’s sense of “The Genealogy of Electracy," always blurred or “impossible," and this is in fact its power. Not only does “electracy" (Ulmer’s term for the type of literacy we must adopt in the digital age) place a renewed importance on the opacity and thus “information-rich" nature of the image, but it also recognizes the need to move from, critically speaking, from mimesis (reference) to relation and structure. This move will change the way we think and produce knowledge, inaugurating a shift that is already underway from the traditional logics of induction and deduction to conduction, a poetic kind of thinking that works through the electric attractions of “puncepts" as well as the jarring discontinuities of montage.

<4> In this new logic we must formulate new ways of learning about art and its relation to space, which is a primary goal of the Pack Observation collective headed by Walter K. Lew. In this special section—a prelude to a complete print version to be co-published by Reconstruction, Canal_138, and Autotypograph— which documents the collectives’ “representation” of Art Basel Miami Beach, often characterized as a “bake-sale” of modern art, the P.O. combines art, found material, photography, poetry, and narrative as a means of simultaneously interrogating Art Basel and meditating on the place of art in the contemporary world. Pack Observation, in its name and influences, harkens to the British Mass Observation group that documented, among other things, the Coronation of King Charles VI in 1937, but its name suggests a mode of observation that is more fugitive and tactical than the original anthropological and ethnographic impulses (albeit inflected by Surrealism) of Mass Observation. Thus, Pack Observing Art Basel><Miami Beach is a work that, although apparently composed of individual parts, really needs to be examined from start to finish because Lew’s editorial vision here is influenced by, among other things, the collage narratives of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, author of Dictée, and the video art of Nam June Paik.

<5> Perhaps not coincidentally, all of the “essays" in this issue also interrogate space through various types of montage practice. Nicola Masciandaro’s essay on "Black Sabbath," an examination of the phenomenology of heavy metal through its founding song, draws upon the ancient art of glossing, traditionally a practice reserved for the illumination of sacred texts. Yet, Masciandaro’s approach to annotation is, to use Roman Jakobson’s terms, less metaphorical (telling what something is) than metonymic (asking what a passage may lead someone to think of next). Joe Culpepper’s “Flâneurs and Infiltrators (How to Read Cityscapes via Textscapes)" takes metonymy literally one step further, following in the footsteps of Toronto based Ninjalicious, a self-proclaimed infiltration artist who produces manuals (in the form of zines and other media) for urban exploration and transgression, including the joys of entering places marked by “Fire Exit" signs, “No Trespassing" signs, “Danger: Do Not Enter" signs, and “Authorized Personnel Only" signs." Holland Wilde performs a similar intervention in his multi-media work “Wilde Emerald," which simulates the relationship between academic outsiders (graduate students, those who do scholarship in the form of media and anthropology in the form of pranks) and insiders. Wilde’s e-mail based “essay," which inevitably yet surprisingly leads to the introduction of a mash-up film on Nanook of the North featuring Frank Zappa as “Zapook," is more of an assay of what traditional and even “progressive" academic circles will tolerate or recognize as knowledge. Wilde’s amalgamation of modes questions a discourse that separates subject from object, as if knowledge was an issue of something that is external and which therefore may be captured – the classical fantasy of ethnographical film. From Wilde’s “emerald" excommunication we move to the “glass slipper" of Dina Smith’s “Traveling with Holly Golightly: Breakfast at Tiffany’s as Cinderella Mythology," which in fact employs the fetishism of Roland Barthes in order to expose 1950s ideologies of upward mobility as nothing more than a string of fetishes hastily stitched together. Smith’s historicism is thus one that not only elaborates its theory but simulates it as well. Her interrogation of who gets left out of certain histories thus finds itself in strange correspondence to the squatting practices described by Kim Paice in her essay on the artist Simon Leung who, identifying squatting not only with the practice of living in a place illegally but with the characteristic resting position of many Asians, “include[s] exclusion and retracted residency as being-outside of being-inside a nation-state, and as being included in political life by virtue of being excluded by the polis." And when we’re not squatting, we’re getting back up to walk, run, and be haunted by the past and by Paul Virilio’s note that “In colonial genocide or ethnocide, he [who survived] was the survivor because he was in fact super-quick (sur-vif)," as depicted in Alan Clinton’s “De-Positions" (an essay in the Pack Observation section), which recounts an evening in which he, as a nervous flaneur, moved from positions of relative privilege through spaces of abject poverty in order to find the art world, only to encounter the uncanny appearance of death there.

<6> Given these concerns with position or de-position, our penultimate section is dedicated to a pair of works that emphasize the gaps rather than the connections in montage, even if these gaps seduce us with the possibility of invisible connections. Maros Krivy’s “Notes on Architecture" emphasizes the rupture between the everyday and the marvelous by juxtaposing two types of the found: print descriptions of what might be termed “official architecture" and photographs of such “buildings" as a structure in the woods in which one cannot be sure if she is witnessing the rickety, destitute dwelling or a magnificent fort built by children. Thus, reminding us as well of the radical aspiration in the historical avant-garde, namely that the encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table is not so much a conceptual image (or a model) as an act of questioning idealism. What Krivy’s practice envisions is clashes and encounters between materials, forcing us back to reality, to the material world in which each confrontation fosters new particular practices. Following up on this strange oscillation, Dmitry Sokolenko’s “The Nabokov Riddle" presents passages from both Nabokov’s scholarly and literary writing on butterflies next to microscopic images of butterfly wings. Sokolenko’s suggestion seems to be that the answer to one riddle (the relationship between butterflies and Nabokov’s imagination) is best presented in the form of another. One goes between Sokolenko’s images and Nabokov’s texts not to find direct but uncanny correspondences, to feel the riddle as such in the uneven wings of breathtaking prose fragments and beauty magnified into strangeness.

<7> Such uncanny correspondence can be sensed in the book review section as well, where Alan Clinton explores such topics as the friendship between Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous and the relationship between poetry and anthropology. Perhaps the spell is broken by Lars Gustaf Andersson’s reading of The Aesthetics of Resistance, but if we are wakened there, it is an awakening “into a swoon," to quote Charles Bernstein. The author of this book only recently translated into English, Peter Weiss, was a German writer and experimental filmmaker whose political plays and resistance to the Vietnam War made him “a travelling spokesman for the Left." Although The Aesthetics of Resistance sounds like a work of political theory, and it is that, it only becomes so through a variety of more or less “novelistic" discourses of resistance, including “inner monologues, thorough descriptions of the geography of the settings, long historical summaries, and philosophical dialogues on the dialectics of the political work and the importance of the aesthetics." Only such a variety of discourses can begin to approach the complexity of united fronts encountering the political real (including the reality of political illusions, spectacles of false consciousness). Describing the importance of form in this work, Andersson quotes one of the voices of the novel itself: “And just as our political decisions were based on fragments, dissonances, hypotheses, resolutions, and slogans, all borne by a conviction deriving from our own life experiences, so too we could not conceptualize art without including its ruptures, fluctuations, and oppositions." And that, if anything, is about as good a definition of “The Avant-Garde as Critical Practice" as one can come up with, as it does not limit us but prods us to translate this eternally fragmenting ideal into our own practices which must necessarily take the form of languages that do not yet exist.



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