Monday, July 07, 2008

Why Avant-Pop Is Still Cool (An Historical Remix)

When Lance Olsen and I first began co-producing and co-directing our published anthology of avant-pop criticism and theory entitled "In Memoriam to Postmodernism: Essays on the Avant-Pop," we were taking into account a lot of the "cultural cool" that we found in various books, film, music, technology and even TV shows. In the intro to our anthology, conducted as a series of fictionalized yet true-to-the-bone emails, we listed many artworks and writerly productions that signaled a break away from older styles of avant-gardism but that still employed many avant-garde methods to engage with our all-pervasive pop culture.

Now that avant-pop has been and is still being historicized as a subset of postmodernism and/or a viral strain in whatever it is that's presently arriving after cultural studies, I occasionally get emails from younger scholars and artists who want to know more about what the A-P "movement" (wrong word) was about. Of special interest is what our intention was.

The funny thing about answering these questions is that so much has changed since we first released the anthology in 1995 and my initial version of the Avant-Pop Manifesto in 1993, that there is no way I can even begin to reflect on what my intentions were back then without remixing what my intentions are now. In other words, as a practicing remixologist, any look back to the past will require me to sample and manipulate the data from current clusters of thought into what I might have been thinking then and to somehow remix it all into some newly envisioned historical form that will, if it is to survive, create some value-added significance as "source material." It ends up that coming to terms with the past is a kind of future-present fiction, a meta-history of the remixologically inhabited pseudo-now, and one that feeds into the strategies of avant-pop itself. Is this a coincidence or I am just lucky?

How would my answers to questions like "What were the intentions of the avant-pop movement back in the mid-90s?" feed into the strategies of avant-pop itself?

For one, I could take the past as source material, sample the bits I find useful for what I am trying to coalesce into new writing on remixology, and begin mashing them up so that the answer to the question is clear as a bell: "The intention was to have no intention other than to apply whatever methods of the avant-garde I had already inherited through both informal practice and the formal educational system I was filtered through, and to distribute whatever art and writing came out of this informal practice to the emerging remixological discourse that was just beginning to make itself known on the web."

It's this part about the "emerging remixological discourse that was just beginning to make itself known on the web" that shakes things up a bit for me. For example, was there really a remixological discourse taking shape on the web and somehow affiliated with the avant-pop "movement" in the mid-90s? Or is that an historical fiction of remixological proportions? Let's start answering that question by first taking into account the title of the 1995 anthology: "In Memoriam to Postmodernism" is a remix of Kathy Acker's "In Memoriam to Identity" and the tail-end of the introduction to the anthology is nothing if not a remixological discourse as Lance Olsen remixes my original manifesto and then I remix his remix and so on until together we get this:

A. Whereas it's true that certain strains of modernism, structuralism, poststructuralism, surrealism, dadaism, futurism, capitalism and even marxism pervade the Avant-Pop sensibility, the major difference is that the artists who create Avant-Pop art are the Children of Mass Media (even more than being the children of their parents, who have much less influence over them). Many of the early practitioners of postmodernism, from Beckett to Vargas Ilosa, Borges to Silko, Davenport to Lessing, Gaddis to Garcia Marquez, who came into active adult consciousness and textual production in the forties, fifties, sixties and early seventies, tried desperately to keep themselves away from the forefront of the newly powerful Mediagenic Reality that was rapidly becoming the space where most of our social exchange was taking place. Despite its early insistence on remaining caught up in the academic and elitist art world's presuppositions of self institutionalization and incest, early postmodernism found itself overtaken by the popular media engine; out of such extremely diverse writers as Abish, Ballard, Barthelme, Burroughs, Coover, Pynchon, Vonnegut, and even Nabokov, whose Lolita is one of the first fictional Avant-Popsters, the A&P began its move toward increasing recognition.

B. Avant-Pop artists have had to resist the avant-garde sensibility that stubbornly denies the existence of a popular media culture and its dominant influence over the way we use our imaginations to process experience. At the same time, A&P artists have had to work hard not to become so enamored by the false consciousness of the mass media itself that they lose sight of their creative directives, the single most important one of which is to enter the mainstream culture as a parasite would, sucking out all the bad blood that lies between the mainstream and the margin. Avant-Popsters thus turn into Mutant Fictioneers, it's true, but our goal is and always has been to face up to our monster deformation and to find wild and adventurous ways to love it for what it is. We have acquired immunity from the Terminal Death dysfunctionalism of a Pop Culture gone awry and are now ready to offer our own weirdly concocted elixirs to cure us from this dreadful disease that infects the core of our collective life.

C. Whereas Avant-Popsters are fully aware of their need to maintain a crucial avant-sensibility as it drives the creative processing of their work, and attaches itself to the avant-garde lineage from which they spring, they are also quick to acknowledge the need to develop more open-minded strategies that will allow them to attract attention within the popularized forms of representation that fill the contemporary Mediascape. Our collective mission is to radically alter Pop Culture's focus by channeling a more popularized kind of dark, sexy, surreal, and subtly ironic gesture that grows out of the work of many twentieth-century artists like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Lenny Bruce, the two Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch); movements like fluxus, situationism, lettrism and neo-hoodooism; and scores of rock bands including the Sex Pistols, Pere Ubu, Bongwater, Slint, L7, Pavement, Stereolab, Meccanormal {this list of bands constantly changes everytime the manifesto is read aloud}...

The emerging wave of Avant-Pop artists now arriving on the scene find themselves caught in this struggle to rapidly transform our sick, commodity-infested workaday culture into a more sensual, trippy, exotic and networked experience. One way to achieve this goal is to create and expand virtual niche communities, many of which already exist through the zine scene and Internet. By actively engaging themselves in the continuous exchange and proliferation of collectively generated electronic publications, individually designed creative works, manifestos, live on-line readings, multi-media interactive hypertexts, conferences, and so forth, Avant-Popsters and the alternative networks they are part of will eat away at the conventional relics of a bygone era where the individual artist-author creates her/his beautifully-crafted, original works consumed primarily by the elitist art world and their business cronies who pass judgment on what is appropriate and what is not.

Literary establishment? Art establishment? Forget it. Avant-Pop artists wear each other's experiential data like waves of chaotic energy colliding and mixing in the textual blood while the ever-changing flow of creative projects that ripple from their collective work floods the electronic cult-terrain with a subtle anti-establishment energy that will forever change the way we disseminate and interact with writing.
If Postmodernism was what we were trained to accept as our cultural identity, then the only way to break away from imposed identity structures was to be destructively creative while "memorializing" the corpse being left behind even as we knowingly acknowledged that our artwork was in part being produced by integrating some of the methods and tactics we eagerly sampled from the avant-garde as well as some of the rich content produced by early avant-garde artists so that we could then smoothly remix them into our new regime of cool. As I liked to say on the home page of the Alt-X website back in those days, "No Mo Pomo!" The Alt-X Online Publishing Network (as we referred to it in the early days) became the home of avant-pop central.

Avant-Pop in the mid-90s was a subcultural phenomenon that hinted at ways to make contemporary English studies interesting again without having to lean too heavily on Derrida and his Others. The road to relevance was via interdisciplinary media arts and a practice-based research style that integrated literary, film, and critical theory, as well as philosophical studies into the mix. In the 10-15 years that have ensued, avant-pop is now part of the cool lexicon, more so in music (where it started anyway with Lester Bowie's album of the same name) than in literature. Its entry into the visual/net art scene was sneaky.

But do these terms and the (not too hidden) political agendas that weigh them down really have a chance of maintaining any serious value in the cool and forever remixable world of digital ones and zeroes? One metric of how A-P's value as a meme has been spread into the mainstream may be in turning to its dot com domain, as in Here is the about page:
What Can You Do?

I design websites.
I fix computers.
I make tourbooks.
I tour with bands.
I do other crazy IT things.


Web-friendly design samples coming very soon, but please take a look at my resume in the meantime.
If I were to remix that while trying to imagine what my intentions were as an self-proclaimed avant-pop artist back in the mid-90s as part of an answer to a question that asks me to reflect on the past, especially given my tendency to turn fiction into myth and myth into branded aspects of "cool" circa 1995, I would write:
What Can You Do?

I design a new art form.
I always need an email fix.
I make computers crash.
I tour on the international festival circuit with my zip disks and laptop.
I do other crazy things that unknowingly qualify me to become a knowledge worker of the future (even if my remixological style is to hack into the culture of information and turn some of its otherwise neutral data into metafictional forms of art).


Alterna-friendly cyberspace cut-ups coming very soon, but please take a look at my last Amerika Online column in the meantime.
Wow, how cool is that?

Cool enough. It's improvised remixological discourse. It took me about 90 seconds to write it. Facility in remixological discourse is something that takes time to learn. It actually requires education, both formal and informal. For example, it could require studying the history of collage, appropriation, literary cut-up, and remix in both art and literature while at the same time introducing to the budding remixologist "ways of seeing" that take into account The Mash-Up of Everyday Life. Given that, what is the intentionof contemporary remixologists who operate as artist-researchers in a higher arts and humanities context? We already have plenty of informal remixological overwritings in the blogosphere as well as endless softvideo mashups happening in that networked society known as Youtube. The examples we can point to are endless although our students are more likely to point us to the most interesting ones that have been uploaded in the last week or two (research assistants, anyone?). It sounds so practical and with it, doesn't it? But will this really lead to a revitalization of the humanities as they struggle to locate relevance within the emerging remixological discourse? That is to say can we make the humanities (what I used to think of as "English" during my undergraduate days) cool enough?

In his smart investigation into knowledge work and the culture of information The Laws of Cool, Alvin Liu wonders aloud what it will take to make educational knowledge in the arts and humanities cool enough to reconsider as source material for your ongoing lifestyle remix:
Here, then, is the song of cool, as I have learned to hear it in contemporary culture. In the register of consumerism first: This tee-shirt with a corporate logo or this TV show with its advertisements: what does it have to do with "me"? It's just a medium, like air or water. "I" am the one who knows how to wear, sample, assemble, mix, or filter that medium with "style." I am a great hunter. And the matching song of producerism: These standards, routines, procedures, protocols, and programs that rule my life: what do they have to do with "me"? They are just my environment. "I" am the one who knows how to browse, search, sample, mix, or filter them with cool technique. In the forest [network] of information technology, I am a great hunter.
In 1996, during the heyday of avant-pop, we called this kind of hunter-sampler a literary minded net artist, one who would surf-sample-manipulate (SSM) their networked life together (even if it was always on the verge of falling apart again, as a collage-construction). Today, borrowing from my new writing, I would call these emerging hunter-samplers remixologists or, for simplicity's sake, postproduction artists (PP artists). The trick is in developing a remixological style that destructively creates new forms of art made out of material sourced from the living archives humanists are responsible for maintaining.

PP artists are trendy and relevant. They practice the art of remixology in that they actively study (research) the methods of proto-PP artists of the past, develop their technique (regularly pick up their ax and play), and stay attuned to the latest developments in whatever technologies they may be interested in employing while generating their new artworks (and in some cases, if that technology does not yet exist or they are not happy with the versions that do exist, then they will either individually or collaboratively invent the technology themselves).

Toward the end of his book, and most relevant for contemporary remixologists who straddle the interdisciplinary media arts scene, Liu writes:
Aesthetics in the age of knowledge work is now being defined by several contenders for a dominant ideology that have not yet fully articulated themselves or negotiated their intramural relationships. For example, in a fuller study we would need to explore the new media aesthetics that together make up what might be called a new "picturesque" for our time. I mean by this the aesthetics of mutation and remixing that recreate through new technologies something like the art of quintessential hybridity and chance [...]
For Liu, this aesthetics of mutation relates to what on this blog we have been calling remixology and can be seen in the ultimate form of mutation/mixing, "the new sublime of 'destruction.' Or more fully, we can call this sublime 'destructive creation,' the critical inverse of the mainstream ideology of creative destruction." The idea is to turn Schumpeter's "entrepreneurism" on his head by way of an emerging viral aesthetics:
Insofar as the avant-garde is indeed exhausted and dead, in other words, then the "make it new" credo that has been its signature since even before the era of Ezra Pound is it palpable corpse, no matter what "new media" attempt to reincarnate it. The truly new art now propagating within the corpse is a viral aesthetics that at once mimes and critiques knowledge work so as to circumvent the corporate tumor that "creativity" has become. Viral aesthetics invents an alternative mode of production resident within the other, dark lobe of contemporary creativity -- to coin a term, destructivity.
Maybe the Avant-Pop remixologists of the future can save humanities from itself not by making cultural studies more corporate but by sampling selected data from all of the available source material in the information economy and putting a little English on it.


BTW, there is a print version of the In Memoriam to Postmodernism: Essays on the Avant-Pop anthology published by San Diego State University Press as part od their "Code(x)/ International Theory Series" (scroll down to the middle of the page to read about it).

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