“Avant-Gardes Now!”Symposium, Oxford Brookes University, May 1, 2015
There are many sparks that can be kindled whilst undertaking research. One such glint in my PhD thesis is the avant-garde. This fire was further stoked by the debates that emerged out of the ‘SAVAnT Panel: Objects and Narrative’ at this year’s British Association for American Studies conference (9-12 April) (you can read more about it here), which offered a much-needed injection of art history and visual culture into discussions of the United States. Avant-Gardes Now! Symposium, hosted by the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, continued these discussions in greater depth making connections across mediums, decades, and texts.
Prior to the symposium I was aware of the complex nature of the very notion of ‘avant-garde’. Reflecting the problematics of most terminology in scholarship, its definition continues to be hotly contested. The location and ‘authors’ of the term’s inception is itself debated. The symposium sought to demonstrate, rather than unpack the arguments involved. It illuminated how the unsettled and unfixed nature of the term nevertheless presents a productive confusion.
Structured into two panels book-ended by a keynote address and a poetry reading, the symposium was one six-hour slice of debates about all things avant-garde(s). Before beginning his keynote, Professor Adam Piette (University of Sheffield) confessed that he hoped he could ‘live up to the ‘Now!’’. He introduced his address, ‘Breton & Soupault’s Les Champs Magnétiques and the First World War’ as more concentrated on the ‘then’. Piette was keen to soften this focus by stating that regardless of the time period covered, the avant-garde is always ‘forward facing’. It is a history of modern ideas. The aim of his keynote echoed that of the symposium – to help current thinking about the avant-garde. Piette did so by offering a close reading of Les Champs Magnetiques (1920) in the context of life during, and immediately after, the Great War. While this reading has not been made before, the text’s scenes and settings have been previously located within a peaceful, ‘modernist every-day mode’. This helped form Piette’s argument that the ‘silence’ of World War I within the text explicitly contextualises the text. Immediate interwar society was built on a contradiction, described by Piette as ,‘know the war was the case; never talk about it; think about it all the time’. Les Champs Magnetiques employs three forms of automatic writing – psychical, psychological, and motor responses – to replicate this amnesiatic war effect. Piette’s findings were a reaction against what he termed as the ‘wiggish attitude’ to the avant-garde. This approach is, Piette argued, prone to losing sight of the evidence. He instead called for critics, authors, and theorists alike to take the resistance of the avant-garde to read historical avant-garde without prejudice. Applying this to Les Champs Magnetiques, Piette stated that it needs to be re-read with the First World War in order to reveal the double movement of censorship.
The two panels of the afternoon further solidified the sentiment of Piette’s arguments. The core of which is the fluidity of the term ‘avant-garde’ and the complexities involved in its application. Professor David Cottingham (Kingston University) summarised this problematic whilst addressing the term from an art historical perspective. He noted that even on the basic level of grammar there is a slippage without acknowledging the differences in its use. This was specifically applied to the notion of ‘performance’ in Dr Claire Warden’s (University of Lincoln) paper, which asked, ‘Can the avant-garde be performed?’ The short answer – yes. The long answer, like avant-garde itself – rhetorical and complex – suggests that perhaps to be avant-garde was not to perform at all. The post-1960s thinking of the avant-garde was continued by Dr Julia Jordan (University College London). Jordan recognised that for her specific group of 1960s writers, which included B.S. Johnson, Alan Burns, and Ann Quinn, there is a sense that the British experimental novel is a failure in an optimistic sense. This, it seems, is the paradox of sixties avant-garde writing. There is a positivity of an avant-garde who are conscious of their own impossibility.
Professor Martin Iddon (University of Leeds) brought this notion into the twenty-first century with an unpacking and contextualisation of Johannes Kreidler’s Fremdarbeit [Outsourcing] (2009). The naughties version of avant-garde conceptual music is a fictionalisation of the music theatre that produces marginalised colonial subjects. Once this veil is revealed as fiction, its grandeur falls away. This signifies the fragility of the use and promotion of a piece as ‘avant-garde’. Emphasising the interdisciplinary application of avant-garde ‘effects’, Nikolaj Lübecker (St. John’s College, University of Oxford) attempted to unpack this notion in film terms. He used Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009), to understand where contemporary directors stand in relation to arguments about avant-garde, and transgression. Perhaps, as Dr Sam Ladkin (University of Sheffield) suggested, there is an antagonism toward the cultural value of the avant-garde. Has, as he asked, history damaged the ‘zero of form’ that Malevich declared his iconic created?
Throughout the day specific phrases became tagged to the definition of avant-garde. Notions of simulation and mimicry were frequently raised in relation to the differences between what is imagined, and what is supposed. The phrase, ‘dead-end’ kept emerging in the papers – be it in reference to texts, films, or music. The notion of repetition itself appeared as a significant constant within which ideas of renewing the ‘new’ was repeated over and over again. It was very fitting then, that the symposium ended with a poetry reading by Peter Manson. He read twenty-two pages of hand-written scrawls, notes, and edits that were put on the projector for the audience to follow. Putting to action the themes of the day, every scratched-out word was read, and with it, a return to the beginning of the line, whereupon it was re-read in its edited form. It was a triumph of the sentiment that the avant-garde makes something visible that is not visible.
The omission of papers by postgraduates framed the symposium as a gathering for prominent academics in the field of avant-garde. It came across as a series of keynotes rather than a panel-led discussion. This, however, was not a failing. The complexity of the debates that emerged after the papers were a testament to the knowledge and level of thought involved in the presentations. As a postgraduate still at the introductory stage of the avant-garde, I found the symposium a productive, and stimulating initiation into its debates. I emerged out of the symposium with more questions to ask, than when I walked in. Thankfully – or not – in an avant-garde style, they are entirely rhetorical.
 The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) provides a productive explanation of Malevich’s work and contribution to the avant-garde, here https://www.moma.org/collection/details.php?theme_id=10202