WAVEFRONT Issue Fall 1986



This essay is an addendum to my previous two-part essay "Art and Holography" (Wavefront Vol. 1, #1 and #2). It was inspired by several criticisms of the overly technical style of the original essay and by my concern that the reader may misinterpret my views as a call for an academic formalization of art and art criticism leading to a neo-formalism in holographic art theory. I began to think about some issues that were overlooked in the original essay and thought it important to discuss that which exists at the limits of art and at the limits of critical discourse, namely avant- garde practice and theory. As we attempt to develop a theory of art holography, we are accountable to the task of identifying the limits of art holography and critical theory; we are accountable to the task of contending with the nemesis of art, the avant-garde.

Finding a Compass

What and where is avant-garde? Is there such a thing at all, and does it have any relevance to art and holography? I would answer that as long as we have "art", we will also have "nonart" or "anti-art", and avant- garde comes close to being "anti-art ". (For reasons which will be apparent later, it is neither synonymous with "art" nor "anti-art".) Avant-garde is something akin to a quality, not a thing--it is contained in all things, sometimes prominent, sometimes submerged. If avant-garde did not exist, it would have to be invented.

Avant-garde is not art, but a practice which opposes institutionalization of art, manning the barricades that exist at the limits of any art form. An avant-garde for holography would thus be a practice that constantly challenges the notion (and the institutions) of what constitutes holographic art.

This is not to be confused with the dry, scientific rejection of art. My distinctions are classical: there have been many avant-gardes in painting, sculpture, theatre and other art forms, and these have been discussed in numerous essays and books. In this discussion I will implicate the classic descriptors (since they form a point of departure for holography, which itself does not exist in a vacuum, but precisely the 20th century), most notably those found in surrealist writing.

Oiling the Classical Machine

Avant-garde, by classical descriptions, is a practice dedicated to the revolutionizing of language, medium and culture; it is a practice dedicated to the overthrow of the institution of Art (with a capital A) and its various conserving forms (museums, galleries, curators, historians, etc.). Avant-garde disturbs art, shakes it up; it is one mechanism by which art transforms into something else, something new. Avant-garde is dedicated to transforming the old into the new; it is the nemesis of both institution and convention.

This permanent revolution of the avant-garde can be a catalyst in the cultural production system. Historically, the avant-gardes (and it is important to remember that there were many) participated in the transformation of art by adversarial means. We might recall the early surrealist attacks on salons, the academy and all traditional art forms, especially impressionism in painting. Similarly, dadaists attacked all forms of tradition and both its cultural manifestations and its politics; formalists attacked symbolists and the (then) entrenched literary scene; avant- gardists seemed constantly embroiled in warfare, doing battle against institution, tradition and habit.

The two most commonly associated characteristics assigned by critics to avant-garde are being "ahead of the time " and being " unorthodox and untraditional". These characteristics tell us little in terms of political persuasion or what makes something ahead or unorthodox. Suffice it to say that being 'ahead' is that quality which promotes original or experimental ideas. We can immediately see that experimentation and holography are definitely tied, but does that mean holography is inherently avant-garde? What about unorthodox and untraditional?

One can see that the 'new' itself is untraditional and in itself presents a protest against stasis and old forms of thinking and the traditions that perpetuate them. Even the traditional sciences are subject to forces which produce change through invention and revolutionary shifts in theory (like Relativity versus Newtonian mechanics).

Who is Driving the Machine?

Avant-garde interests, as partially reflected in surrealism, are not only anti-institutional and obsessed with transformation (the 'ideology of change') but are ultimately optimistic that any attack on surface and language will result in a breaking down and rearranging that produces new connections, new possibilities and new consciousness.

The surrealist war is one waged against a world of surfaces, habits and utilitarian language. Some have speculated that surrealist antipathy to logic and reasoned explanation was responsible for the absence of criticism and theory. The surrealists substituted poetic speech for attempted explanation.

Avant-garde, critical of society, 'makes love to it' by embracing it in a fierce anarchic clutch. Beyond mere formal antipathies to language and expression, there exists on the social and cultural levels a political program that is closer to leftist ideologies than to the conservative right, which works to maintain the status quo, and its 'churches of God'. The classical avant-gardes, like the surrealists, were noted for their manifestos and proclamations against capitalism and authority, and reserved their most severe attacks for the Stalinist and totalitarian regimes of Russian origin.

On bourgeois art, Rene Magritte had this to say: "Middle-class order is only disorder. Disorder to the point of paroxysm, deprived of all contact with the world of necessity. The profiteers of capitalist disorder defend it by a stack of sophisms and lies whose credit they attempt to maintain in all realms of human captivity"

On the Stalinist state, Andre Breton had this to say: "Even at the cost of arousing the fury of their toadies, we ask if there is any need of drawing up another balance sheet in order to judge a regime by its works--in this case the present regime of Soviet Russia and the all-powerful head under whom this regime is turning into the very negation of what it should be and what it has been."

As the surrealists developed their own anti-establishment and anti-art language and political program--one that put them at odds with everyone, including the communists -- one could see that this avant-garde was participating in a kind of permanent revolution that has been with us since time immemorial. Many people completely misunderstand the function of anarchic elements within society. The misunderstanding is largely based on a phobia of chaos and disorder, and the fear that anarchism leads to a total collapse of the social fabric. Thus, the typical counter to an avant-garde attack on order and establishment is to condemn the avant-garde as insane or criminal.

Consider one of the most extreme statements made by Breton in the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929): "The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level." (He further commented on this paragraph in a footnote: "I know that these last two sentences are going to delight a certain number of simpletons...")

See also Emma Goldman addressing the Second Anarchist Congress (1907) for additional insights into anarchism.

The point Breton raised was one of freedom and imagination. He never himself rushed into a crowd with pistol in hand and in fact his last statement: "Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed...", is quite explicit on the relationship between dream and action. The "anarchism", the "absolute revolt", the "total insubordination" and the "regulated sabotage" in avant- garde terms are imaginary conditions that also lead to a freedom of imagination.

Against Utopia

Recalling Breton's "perfection is laziness" motto, it is not hard to see that at the formal as well as political levels, avant-garde practice is dedicated to the undoing of ideals, purity and essentialism in any medium. As such, the classical avant- gardes of the modernist epoch--dadaists, cubists, surrealists--set themselves against the teleological tendency that many modernist art forms exhibited towards the discovery of "essential" qualities of a medium and representation. The avant-gardes existed as a nemesis for those practices that sought to discover a universal symbolic order--like a plane of Platonic "ideals" -- that could account for life and culture.

A holographic avant-garde would equally be set against notions of "purity" and "essence" in holography, notions representing an achievable goal of utopian proportions, whether formal or political. Here, then, is why an avant-garde criticism of notions such as holocosmology (see Wavefront Vol. 1, #2) is important for the cultural climate to remain vital and not paralyzed by imaginary utopian visions of a "perfect" universe expressed "perfectly" by the one medium capable of doing so: holography.

Many holo-cosmological speculations are riddled with utopian conceptions of nature, harmony and a kind of everlasting "wholeness" that permeates all. I need not repeat my criticisms; I wish only to implicate avant-gardist ideologies of subversion within that kind of criticism that Breton maintained " can only exist as a form of love".

Thus, earlier conceptions of an avant-gardist program promoting "change", "the new" and transformation should be understood within a more general context of political change which is also set against utopian models and finality Here in the avant garde we might perceive a program that is also decidedly antisocialist (in the utopian sense of socialism) but pro-humanist, in the sense that humanity is always in a state of what Antonin Artaud called "becoming" .

The permanent revolution of avantgarde interests was nowhere better exemplified than in the writings of Artaud, a French playwright and dramatist who, among other things, criticized as a fraud any art practice that featured repetition. Similarly, he set himself as a champion against what he termed "stolen speech", the historicization and validation of art on the basis of incorporating elements derived from others. For Artaud, each artistic gesture is deemed to be by necessity an original one and any attempt to consolidate or exploit a technique (or successful image formula) is a bastardization of that unique and innovative moment that avant-gardists celebrate and that institutionalized art commodities (as "fine art" for sale as a limited or unlimited " series" ).

Artaud maintained (and I will "steal" from him as well) that "the highest possible idea of the theatre (and this could easily be applied to holography) is one that reconciles us philosophically with becoming."

Becoming what? one might ask. Becoming "art" or becoming a unique human being, Artaud would answer, without falling into the trap of sanctifying and fixing (through definition) art as something apart from change and transformation.

Crisis of the Object/ Crisis of the Criticism

For the avant-garde, culture is always in a state of crisis; the object of representation is always poetically unstable and war is waged with surface and logical explanations of actions that are essentially expressions of the imagination.

Breton's essay "Crisis of the Object" (1936) reproposed "concrete irrationality" in art as something akin to "mathematical objects", "poetic objects" and objects appearing in dreams. The surrealist war against surface representation is in fact an attempt to liberate the imagination from habit and convention, to encourage one to seek meaning beneath the surface. Breton's convictions were that "there is more to be found in the hidden real than in the immediate known quantity". This is related to the formalist preoccupation with "making strange" the habitual and thereby revitalizing our sense of life and "the real" through poetic displacement.

In my previous essay, "Art and Holography", I commented on the capacity of holography to reveal aspects of reality by changing the practitioner's and viewer's conception of the visible through apperception. In this situation, art and expression precipitate change by infecting the viewer with another sense of what he/she experiences and what he/she is in relationship to that experience. In this condition, the viewer's perceptions are altered, and with that alteration there arises a new knowledge and a new sense of experience.

Holography is in fact well suited to the task of representing the "crisis of the object", and many works have long departed from the originally fashionable task of mimetic representations of objects as "real things" presented in nicely framed wall pieces of flowers and figurines and models (ad nauseum). The crisis of the object is precisely that which reveals the instability of the object. The crisis of the criticism is precisely that which should also reveal the changing relationship that criticism has to poetic expression, since the main structuralist trap has been to situate criticism safely between expression and interpretation/ experience as a kind of guarantor of meaning.

The main deficiency in my previous essay is its tendency to fall into the above structuralist trap, since so much effort is dedicated towards "mediating" influences and very little "love" can thus be enacted between the discourse that studies and the actions that provoke it.

The Ready-Made and Holography: Allegory of the Missing Object

Against this wall stands a urinal, against another wall a bicycle wheel. Enter academicians and academic structural-conceptual artists.

This is a gallery of the object as "something else", the avant-garde of Marcel Duchamp's "ready-made". Here the art is pre-manufactured, and meaning is " constructed" -- here the classic models of artist as expressive agent are contradicted and discarded. Ridiculed. How does one match " this meaning with that image, or that image with this meaning"? The images are ones of appropriated objects, now re-presented ("procreated") as a "work of art". In this gallery, presentation becomes the guarantor of meaning. Meaning what? Art as simulacrum of art)fice and conventions -- the "ready- made" reinvented.

Before, we had a "crisis of the object"; today we can contemplate the absence of the object, and the many stories that are told concerning this absence. Benjamin Buchloh, one of my favorite academic critics, tells us one:

"This emphasis (in Duchamp) on the manufactured sign)fier and its mute existence releases at the same time the hidden determinations of the work and the conditions of its perception: ranging from the framing and presentational devices and the institutional framework to the conventions of meaning assignment within the system of art itself"

Duchamp's urinal is a stand-in for a "work of art", the object and the focus for "aesthetic experience". What would Duchamp's avant-garde do with holography? Would there be an overriding concern for the object which, once a hologram is made, is used as a referent, or would both object and hologram be rejected? Would this avant-garde take someone else's hologram and deface it, change its title and authorship? Perhaps at the outset of its development it may challenge and alter object and interpretation. But I will speculate that such an avant-garde may also tell us stories, as allegory in art, of the "missing object".

Imagine walking into a darkened gallery space and perceiving only an optical configuration featuring a laser, beam splitter, lenses and the combined beams of a Michelson interferometer. (This exhibition actually occurred in Toronto at Interference Gallery.) The "object" in this case is the room ambience containing you, who "creates" the changes in the projected fringe pattern. A site-specific installation which could contain a hologram if it were deemed necessary to insert a photographic plate in the path of the combined beams.

Now further imagine being confronted by an image, or a condition alluding to an image, that speaks to you conceptually about the absence of the hologram but requires you to conceptually recreate this absent object. The stories this art would have you tell would reflect on your own conception and anticipation of holographic art and in a manner where reconceptualization is pre-eminent over art appreciation.

The Machine Stops at the Edge of its World

Actions and criticisms (and the various theories thereof) which are based on oppositionalisms and formal/ political antipathies are symptomatic of an old world and an old order. This is the Newtonian world of mechanics and analysis by decomposition, segmentation and dismemberment. Much of the new paradigm in holography, the world of relativistic physics and relativistic art is burdened by the fact that it cannot explain itself adequately to the old. And failing that, it is easily dismembered by structuralist analysis which can show one contradiction after another in holo-cosmologists' attempts to describe the universe.

The problem is that there is considerable merit in the new paradigm of holographic thought. This merit should not be confused by the mystical utterances of some illiterate practitioners nor should it be confused with the ill-informed attempts by nonphysicists to explain a "new physics" of the kind found in David Bohm's writings. The problem has been, and will continue to be, one of muddled thinking and misplaced efforts which confuse metaphor with relation and lead to such statements as "the universe operates holographically" being promoted as God's truth.

The avant-garde in holography, wherever it is and whenever it shows its face, could at least guarantee that we don't sit back smugly, write our memories as "history" and make our pronouncements on art and revolution without at least being partially accountable to that which tests these theories and their limits.

The machine of dialectics, antipathy, segmentation and decomposition in criticisms, the machine of classic avant-garde interests, is actually a machine of the past that carries with it the ghosts of the past--the cubists, dadaists, surrealists, etc. We must leave this machine behind, conscious of its existence but unwilling to ride with its baggage train. Its legacy is that we must be unsatisfied with the past if we are to provoke a future, and the past includes the past avant-gardes as well.

To shake everything up requires some purpose, or at least some intent. The holographic arts, as the surrealists once demonstrated, have been insular to the point of resisting any theory or criticism. Many have promoted the privileged view that any attempts to identify relations and theoretical connections are really beside the point of making art and expressing oneself; others are infuriated by an academicsounding language being included with critical discourse. There are many limits to critical discourse to be revealed, the least of which is the limit demonstrated by the art practice itself and the inability of art criticism to ultimately join that practice in a state of orgiastic love. However, there are many discourses possible in art and criticism, and we have just scratched the surface.

If I may repeat Breton: "The Poet of the future will surmount the depressing notion of the irreparable divorce of action and dream." It is imperative that we soon leave behind this ghost machine at the edge of its world, a world already institutionalized in museums around the world in remnants that fetch incredibly high prices.

"All writing is pigshit," Artaud once declared (in writing). "People who leave the obscure and try to define whatever it is that goes on in their heads are pigs."

It is the paradoxes and the contradictions that ultimately remain, even if unresolved. "Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction," Louis Arragon once maintained.

DeChirico's statues still desire and conquer. The shadows have changed; the light remains the same.

"The problem resides specifically in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born," declared the anarchist Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. As classicism becomes morbid and authority punishes imagination, the problem is that of giving birth to the stillborn.

Yesterday, moving sands. Today, food for vision.

The worst thing is that some dream they are walking, while others walk in a dream.

It matters not who is the dreamer
and who is the dreamt.

What matters is that once there were
and divisions and compartments

to be analyzed;

now there is the impossibility

of such pretensions;

now there is the insecurity

of the past and the

promise of future.

-- Al Razutis, 1986

Examples of Avant-garde Films