avant-gardes in Mars & Medak 2019
rge, in order to become ‘a powerful vehicle
for troubling troubled times’ (Berlant, 2016: 394-395).
The trajectory of radical gestures, discontinuities by re-invention, and creative
destruction of the old have been historically a hallmark of the avant-gardes. In
what follows, we will revisit the history of the avant-gardes, claiming that,
throughout their periodic iterations, the avant-gardes returned and mutated
always in response to the dominant processes and crises of the capitalist
development of their time. While primarily an artistic and intellectual
phenomenon, the avant-gardes emerged from both an adversarial and a coconstitutive relation to the institutions of higher education and knowledge
production. By revisiting three epochal moments along the trajectory of the
avant-gardes – 1917, 1967 and 2017 – we now wish to establish how the
structural context for radical disruption and radical transformation were
historically changing, bringing us to the present conjuncture where the library
and the university can reclaim the legacy of the avant-gardes by seemingly doing
its exact opposite: refusing innovation.
1917 – Industrial modernization,
In his text on ‘Modernity and Revolution’ Perry Anderson (1984) provides an
axis of life the content of works’ (Bürger, 1984: 49)
While capitalism was becoming the dominant reality, the freedom of art was
working to suppress the incursion of that reality in art. It was that distance,
between art and life, that historical avant-gardes would undertake to eliminate
when they took aim at bourgeois art. With the ‘pathos of historical
progressiveness on their side’ (Bürger, 1984: 50), the early avant-gardes were
thus out to relate and transform art and life in one go.
Early industrial capitalism unleashed an enormous social transformation
through the formalization and rationalization of processes, the coordination and
homogenization of everyday life, an
uctive forces and global
expansion of capitalist relations made the humanity and the world into a new
article | 351
horizon of both charitable and profitable endeavors, emancipatory and imperial.
The world became a project (Krajewski, 2014).
The avant-gardes around the turn of the 20th century integrated and critically
inflected these transformations. In the spirit of the October Revolution, its
revolutionary subjectivity approached social reality as eminently transformable.
And yet, a recurrent concern
avant-gardes in Medak, Mars & WHW 2015
, translated and
edited by W. Boyd Rayward, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990: 148–156.
So we won the battle but lost the war. By “we”, I
mean those avant-gardes of the late twentieth century whose mission was to free information from the
property form. It was always a project with certain
nuances and inconsistencies, but over-all it succeeded beyond almost anybody’s wildest dreams. Like
many dreams, it tur
work of artists or of curators;
of publishers or of writers; of archivists or researchers. They contain lots of files. Monoskop is mostly
books and journals; UbuWeb is mostly video and
audio. The work they contain is mostly by or about
the historic avant-gardes.
Monoskop Log bills itself as “an educational
open access online resource.” It is a component part
of Monoskop, “a wiki for collaborative studies of
art, media and the humanities.” One commenter
thinks they see the “fingerprint of the curat
character was constantly re-examined and ripped asunder. It is this ambivalent
character that has been a potent motor for critical theory, artistic and political subversion — from
Marx’s critique of political economy, psychoanalysis
and historic avant-gardes, to revolutionary politics.
Here we will examine the formation of the library
as an epistemic and social institution of modernity
and the forms of critical engagement that continue
to challenge the totalizing order of knowledge and
appropriation of c
ruling classes heeded
the demand for tax-financed public libraries, hoping
that the access to literature and edification would
ultimately hegemonize the working class for the
benefits of capitalism’s culture of self-interest and
The Avant-gardes in the Library
As we have just demonstrated, the public library
in its epistemic and social aspects coalesced in the
context of the broader social transformations of
modernity: early capitalism and processes of nation-building in Europe and the USA.
ropriations, remediations and displacements exacted by the neo-avantgardes in the second half of the 20th century pro07 Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (MIT
Press, 2008) provides a detailed account of strategies that
the historic avant-gardes and the post-war art have developed toward the classificatory and ordering regime of the
duced subversions, resignifications and simulacra
that only further blurred the lines between histories
and their construction, d
ave transformed e-books into
closed silos. Both the decommodification of access
and the overcoming of the reified construct of the
The Future After the Library
self-enclosed work in the form of a book come at
the cost of illegality.
Even the avant-gardes in all their inappropriable
and idiosyncratic recalcitrance fall no less under
the legally delimited space of copyrightable works.
As they shift format, new claims of ownership and
appropriation are built. Copyright is a normative
classification that is totalizing, regardless of the
effects of leaky networks speaking to the contrary.
Few efforts have insisted on the subverting of juridical classification by copyright more lastingly than
the UbuWeb archive. Espousing the avant-gardes’
ethos of appropriation, for almost 20 years it has
collected and made accessible the archives of the
unknown; outsider, rare and canonized avant-gardes and contemporary art that would otherwise remained reserved for the vaults and restricted access
channels of esoteric markets, selective museological
presentations and institutional archives. Knowing
that asking to publish would amount to aligning it
ight apologists up the wrong way.
Rather than producing qualifications, evasions and
ambivalences, straightforward affirmation of copy
ing, plagiarism and reproduction as a dominant
yet suppressed mode of operation of digital culture re-enacts the avant-gardes’ gesture of taking
no hostages from the officially sanctioned systems
of classification. By letting the incumbents of control over cultural production react to the norm of
copying, you let them struggle to dispute the norm
rather than you having to
dividual text to segments
of other texts and other digital artifacts across now
permeable boundaries of the book.
Developed as a wiki for collaborative studies of
art, media and the humanities, Monoskop.org took
up the task of mapping and describing avant-gardes and media art in Europe. In its approach both
indexical and encyclopedic, it is an extension of
the collaborative editing made possible by wiki
technology. Wikis rose to prominence in the early
2000s allowing everyone to edit and extend websites runn
on its own specific topical and
topological interests. However, from its earliest days
Monoskop.org has also developed as a form of index
that maps out places, people, artworks, movements,
events and venues that compose the dense network
of European avant-gardes and media art.
If we take the index as a formalization of cross-referential relations between names of people, titles
of works and concepts that exist in the books and
across the books, what emerges is a model of a relational database reflecting the
t in the library, an index
in its own right, potentially allows one to initiate
the relational re-classification and re-organization
of all other works in the library through linkable
Fundamental to the works of the post-socialist
retro-avant-gardes of the last couple of decades has
been the re-writing of a history of art in reverse.
In the works of IRWIN, Laibach or Mladen Stilinović, or comparable work of Komar & Melamid,
The Future After the Library
totalizing modernity is detourned
d, over-affirmed and displaced to
open up the historic past relegated to the archives
to an understanding that transformed the present
into something radically uncertain. The efforts of
Monoskop.org in digitizing of the artifacts of the
20th century avant-gardes and playing with the
epistemic tools of early book culture is a parallel
gesture, with a technological twist. If big data and
the control over information flows of today increasingly naturalizes and re-affirms the 19th century
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