An Event Logic of the Avant-Garde : From Zurich to Zucotti
– a project of research and writing
Alan Prohm, PhD – alanprohm.wordpress.com
This project proposes an investigation into the logics of action and positioning applied by avant-garde formations to establish and maintain their avant-gardness. It pursues a cultural history of the avant-garde, not along the production timelines of a museumized art history, but as much as possible within the stream of live actions and events by which would-be revolutionary cultural formations find their way forward and seek to advance the front of social/political change once they’ve found it. The history pursued here is centered in the experiences of the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals (1952-1972), attempting to restart revolutionary avant-gardism on a Berlin DADA model lost in the compromises of Parisian Surrealism. As my guiding premise I will take the sometimes-held principle that to occupy a position that prior actions have surpassed is to not be avant-garde. This is the “hard fine line” I will attempt to trace back from the S.I. to its roots in DADA, and forward to its legacies in the art activism of today. My aim will be to tell a “gapless” story, leaving no decade and barely any year of the avant-garde torch-passing unaccounted for. And as the material substance of my history, I will privilege, not the celebrated artworks and manifestoes, but the actions, scandals, staged events and interventions by which actors in these movements sought to escape the captured sphere of art production, and revolutionize everyday life directly.
The Situationists are famous. Active in Paris from the early 1950’s through 1972, this group of cultural agitators was largely forgotten after the failings of ‘68. Then in the 1990’s came a trickle, and in the 2000’s a surge, and now in the 2010’s seemingly quite a wave of publications, all devoted to recalling the edgy glamor and disseminating the critical wit of this most recent of the major avant-gardes. See McKenzie Wark’s popular The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso 2011), or the role Claire Bishop accords the group in her new survey of participitory art, Artificial Hells (Verso, 2012). Or the scribal devotions of the printers at Éditions Allia in paris under George Bérreby. Or, one more example: the large international conference on “Situationist Aesthetics” organized this past June at the University of Sussex. Today, only DADA may still rank higher, for some, as the prime exemplar of an artistic avant-garde.
But what is being told and retold is still mostly just half the story. The popularity of the movement’s early “artistic” phase continues to dominate attention, while a central message of the group’s subsequent “critical” phase (10-12 years, so fully half its history), goes largely ignored, namely the view that art and artistic practices, including those they themselves had pursued, in fact run counter to the core priorities that motivated them from the start. What priorities? “The groping search for a new way of life”, i.e. changing the world. Art is counter-revolutionary, they concluded, in line with DADA who declared it dead, and so, not avant-garde.
This merely repeats a situation affecting discourse on the avant-garde more generally. Since approximately the 1950’s DADA has been the standard authenticating reference for the notion of an artistic avant-garde. And yet the industries of scholarship, publishing and museum curation that have evolved around this notion have flourished largely in disregard of the movement’s own fundamental rejection of art practices and institutions. The essentially revolutionary content of DADA and the avant-garde currents it inspired is to this day largely sidelined, or neutralized in a perspective that views their commitments as mere background to the production of objects. Our own ability to evaluate the relevance of cultural practices to social change, or to discern the modes of engagement that might make a difference today, are hampered by these historicizing and neutralizing perspectives.
In my own teaching since 2004 I have explored these traditions and their legacies with students of literature (University of Helsinki), art and design (Aalto University), urban studies (Estonian Academy of Art) and sociology (University of Helsinki), all with a priority placed on active, current engagements. Before that my graduate studies in experimental poetics at Stanford University covered this same time period from more straight-forwardly literary perspectives. And my dissertation (Stanford 2004) on visual poetry and poetics involved much of the mixed-media art production of the movements I am looking at here.
More recently I have published on closely related themes in journals in Europe and the US. My 2008 article in the Estonian Architectural Review (“L’urbanisme n’existe pas: Situationist Critique and Radical practice”) sought to remind architects and urbanists fond of the Situationists’ early practices of the later critical reappraisal of those practices. This text forms a basis for my planned chapter 4. Also, in a recent piece in a issue of Cahiers de la Nouvelle Europe devoted to last year’s Avant Garde conference (Transfers de l’Avant-Garde hosted by the Interuniversitary Center for Finnish and Hungarian Studies CIEH&CIEFi) in paris, I sketched out the basic argument and narrative which I am developing in this project. The full version of that text, entitled “Aucun retour possible: an Event Logic of the Avant-Garde” comes to 40 pages, covering in brief the full arc of the argument I am proposing for my current research.
My aim with this research is to sketch a consistent narrative of this current of avant-gardism, one uniting Berlin DADA and the Situationists with current radical practices in Europe and the US, and characterized by the principle that to occupy a position past actions have surpassed is to not be avant-garde. I hope by doing this to deepen our understanding of the logics that have guided these avant-garde formations in their search for a front of engagement, and in their search for effective means of cultural production. Furthermore, I aim to overcome the fragmentation and rear-view focus of our common notions of the avant-garde, by tracing these currents all the way through to present-day groups engaging creatively at the flashpoints of our present situation. The aim is to track the questioning and conclusions of this event logic all the way from Zurich in 1916 to Zucotti Park in 2011.
The goal of this work will be to produce a short book of 180-200 pages in 6 chapters.
Intro: Aucun Retour possible (10pp)
Chapter 1: BERLIN (25pp)
Chapter 2: NOT PARIS (30pp)
Chapter 3: NOW PARIS – LETTRISM (25pp)
Chapter 4: NOW PARIS – THE S.I. (20pp)
Chapter 5: NOT THE S.I. (25pp)
Chapter 6: USA TODAY (25pp)
Conclusion: No Going Back (15pp)
Intro: Aucun Retour possible
polemical presentation of the argument – overview of contents – characterization of the artistic avant-garde before 1914 – framing the notion of an event as cultural action acting on the sphere of everyday life – the event logic of Zurich DADA – actions in and around the Cabaret Voltaire
Chapter 1: BERLIN
The logic of return to Berlin – founding actions of Berlin DADA – the social/political stage in Berlin 1918 – Berlin DADA’s circle of affinities – peak actions of Berlin DADA: disruption of celebrations for the Weimar Republic, street cortège disseminating Jedermann sein eigner Fußball
Chapter 2: NOT PARIS
Contrasted situation in paris in 1919 – founding actions in paris and the DADA season 1920 – the Barrès trial and the Surrealist coup – the “positive turn” of Surrealist actions – the arc and fall of Surrealist revolutionary engagements – the collapse of revolutionary prospects in Europe and the dwindling of avant-garde activities in the 1930’s
Chapter 3: NOW PARIS – LETTRISM
Creative resistance actions during the war — the art scene in 1944 – the arrival of Isidore Isou and the founding action of Lettrism in 1945 – Lettrist actions 1945-1950 – the Notre-Dame affair – the Charlie Chaplin action and the Ultra-Lettrist coup – the renewed event logic of the Lettrist International
Chapter 4: NOW PARIS – THE S.I.
The eventful summer of 1952-53 – early situationist practices as an applied aesthetics of events – the re-re-rejection of art – the S.I. event logic of organization – event analysis in the pages of the Internationale Situationniste – the search for alliances – applied event theory Nanterre 1966 to paris 1968
Chapter 5: NOT THE S.I.
The mood in paris in 1972 – the rise of violent action in theory and pratice post ‘68 – S.I. knock-ons in Germany: Spur, Subversive Aktion, Komune 1, NLF – S.I. knock-ons in Britain: International Times, Heatwave, King Mob, Suburban press, Spectacular Times – Sid Vicious’ dinner and the event logic of punk
Chapter 6: USA TODAY
S.I. knock-ons in the US: NY, Chicago, Berkeley – Yippie actionism – hippie event logic from the Merry pranksters to TAZ – Critical Art Ensemble’s nomadic model – tactical media actions from rtmark to the Yes Men – direct action networks in Seattle 1999 – Chicago projects 2000-05 – Occupy Wall St.
Conclusion: No Going Back
The contagion logic of revolutionary events 2011-12 – 1928:2008, popular/critical analogies with Weimar – Wallerstein’s logic of events in the context of world-system collapse – world event map: a horizon of current points of engagement
 Notably, in both Wark’s Beach and Bishop’s Hell, the critical phase is well acknowledged, but still sidelined to a focus on the artworld-relevant aspects of their work.