Arrière-Garde

Lev Manovich claims that the new media software of the last two decades codifies the avant-garde formal techniques of the 1920s. This would seem to characterize software as, arrière-garde, to borrow Perloff’s phrase. If, in military terms, the avant-garde is at the forefront, the arrière-garde brings up the rear. In this sense, Manovich’s argument positions software as bringing up the rear in terms of formal technique. However, Manovich argues that, while software does embody some techniques of the 1920s, it also represents a new avant-garde, in the sense that it inaugurates a meta-media society, repurposing the contents of old media rather than reflecting the outside world. According to Manovich, the data manager is the new avant-garde artist.

This last point seems to be on tenuous ground. One distinction I’d like to make is that the definition of the avant-garde often implies something of a counter-cultural tendency, rather than simply being groundbreaking. For example, I wouldn’t call Mark Zuckerberg “avant-garde” simply because he founded Facebook first. An important distinction arises here. While the 1920s avant-garde was a movement of individuals, Manovich’s software movement is an avant-garde of corporations, of Microsoft and Apple, not the likes of Moholy-Nagy or Rodchenko. I don’t deny that there is much to be said for the avant-garde possibilities of software. But calling software itself avant-garde seems to be like calling a movie camera avant-garde. To be avant-garde requires, in Vertov’s example, both man and movie camera, as we see from the films from this week.

The anticipation of software abounds in Vanderbeek’s “Science Friction.” The cut and paste aesthetic resurfaces in the contemporary incarnation of Photoshop. But while Vanderbeek’s film is readily classifiable as avant-garde, Photoshop itself is not. As the rest of the films demonstrate, the avant-garde across the decades tends to make creative misuse of its materials. Whitney’s “Permutations,” though hardly advanced by today’s technology standards, still represents an important step in aestheticizing mathematics. Vasulka and O’Reilly’s “Scan Processor Studies” also embodies this machine aesthetic, and takes on an air of the political in our age of TSA airport body-scanners.

In “Watch,” Rokeby “hacks” (in the least pejorative sense) a street surveillance camera. Again, this film is colored with politics: while corporations develop surveillance technologies as tools of the state, avant-garde artists like Rokeby creatively misuse such technologies in the making of avant-garde art. Rokeby’s “Cheap Imitation” hacks Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” reanimating the “nude” through an interactive gallery installation.

Gordon’s “Making Eyes” seemed like a bit of an outlier here. Visually, the collage of eyes is quite striking, and it does perhaps put the viewer in mind of surveillance, once again. But my first association with “Making Eyes” is the Beckett play Not I, which consists solely of an illuminated mouth speaking a string of disassociated, traumatized phrases.

Addendum: Both Bruce Conner’s “A Movie” and the Quay Brothers’ “Street of Crocodiles” use music as structuring devices. Connor’s film consists of thematic collages of related images, coupled with a particular musical For example, one section of the film centers on automobile crashes. When the musical phrase ends, the collage begins to focus on bicycles, or boating, etc. “Street of Crocodiles” seems more structured around narrative than Connor’s film. The stop-motion life of a puppet proceeds through a series of musical structures. Whereas the music in Connor’s film is purely structural, the Quay brothers’ music seems to add tone to the film.

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