Hyperrhiz 08: Essays

The Avant Garde Doesn't Give Up

McKenzie Wark

The New School for Liberal Arts


An essay in response to Darren Tofts' essay "Century of change? Media arts then and now."

Consider two photographs by Trevor Paglen. The first is an image of the night sky taken with an exposure of a short duration. One sees the stars winking in the blackness, and a streak or two crossing the black. They are orbiting satellites. The second image shows the sky photographed with a long exposure. The stars now appear to move in arcs, although of course it is the earth that is rotating, not the stars. Look closely and you can see some stars that don't move at all: satellites again. These are in geosynchronous orbit. The two photographs make visible two kinds of human intervention into the night sky: satellites that turn with the speed of the earth and satellites that move faster than the earth's turning. In both cases what makes this almost invisible thing visible is two other points of reference: the earth and the stars.

The satellites Paglen is particularly interested in are 'black' ones, used by military and intelligence agencies. In order to know when and where to point his camera to record them, he relies on the websites and listservs of a small band of amateur experts who take an interest in such things. Sometimes, he also turns his camera on the bases and restricted zones from which official power and knowledge manages such objects. Using lenses designed for the night sky, he photographs such bases from miles away. These photographs have a liminal quality both in terms of their legality, and also as representational images. Some are images more of the heat haze than of the secret base. Some of Paglen's images are barely representational at all, such as when he images the radar waves that mark the electromagnetic borders of the United States.

Some of the satellites Paglen records are used to manage remote surveillance and attack drones. These have cameras mounted in them, which allows their pilots to navigate them from the safety of their secret base in the Nevada desert. The video feed from the satellite back to Nevada is — curiously enough — not encrypted. Some of the satellites are quite old, and adding encryption adds latency, making the craft difficult to fly. With the help of a few discreet hackers, Paglen has managed to record some of this video feed. It is an eerie sight, watching the world from the point of view of a pilotless drone, as it wheels about in the air trying to get its bearings.

Paglen's work can be viewed, among other things, within a quite canonic modernist space that is interested in the outer limits of the visible. Impressionism, as T. J. Clark showed so well, was not just an empirics of the play of light and colour, but was a response above all to the technical and economic transformations of the landscape in a certain moment in the evolution of capitalism. Modernism, when it appears at its most formal, when it seems most concerned with its own materials and practice, is generally at the same time responding to the social transformation of its conditions of existence. What Peter Bürger calls the historic avant gardes go further than this. They seek a conscious transformation of art into a social practice, a merging of art and life, an overcoming of the limits of the aesthetic as a realm of mere compensation for the commodification and formalization of the world.

The late twentieth century was a time when a lot of commentators were particularly anxious to make the whole problem of the social life of the aesthetic go away. The kind of historical materialist critique offered by Clark was anathema to a resurgent formalism. Even more distasteful was the very idea of a politics of the aesthetic that sought to abolish the aesthetic as a separate category. 'Political' art was OK, so long as it remained merely art. How boring that move now seems, in retrospect. Art, cut adrift from the modern vocation to revolutionize, if not life, then at least its own form, becomes nothing more than high-end interior decoration. Even the vain hope of modernism seems preferable to the contemporary art fair, with its ungainly mélange of banality and sleaze. Future historians, if they have any integrity at all, will be obliged to find the action elsewhere.

So while Paglen's work can be read in terms of the high modernist play with the limits of the visible, at the same time it also does quite the opposite. It finds a way to render a certain kind of contemporary power, if not visible, then intelligible — intelligible in its very invisibility. In Paglen's work, the formal and the social meet at the frontier of technologized vision and control. Yet this is not work that capitulates to the paranoia and quietism of the 'panoptic' state, manipulating and managing every last skerrick of biopower. It threads together little counter networks which at least escape from such a world.

There's nothing shocking about Paglen's images, but then perhaps shock is a special effect of early twentieth century modernism that occurred under very special circumstances. What was shocking was not this or that moment in art, but the experience it attempted to formalize: the experience of mass mechanized warfare. A generation left its villages by horse and cart and was thrown into a world of tanks and artillery, of warplanes and bombs and barbed wire. It happened again, of course, for the generation of the 40s, but in the west, by and large, it hasn't happened since.

Needless to say the aesthetics of shock is probably alive and well in Afghan villages and Iraqi suburbs at present. But if a bomb falls in a forest and artist is not there to see it, and an art critic is not there to see what the artist saw, does it make a sound? In the West, technologized warfare corresponds more to Paglan's silent, global network, maintained by specialists, out of sight and out of mind. Shock is not much with us any more, which is not to say that other effects from the modernist bag of tricks might not still work.

One of Asger Jorn's painting series known as the Modifications starts with a painting Jorn bought in a flea market of a small child, to which he added a moustache and the legend 'The avant garde doesn't give up.' It seems prescient, for a work of midcentury, to declare in advance that the work of attempting to outflank the social reality of the modern world with an aesthetic gambit is not something that is going to come to an end. It might just change arena and change strategy.

For instance, the collage tactics of dada becomes in turn the détournement of the Situationists, which morphs in turn into the great torrent of information circulating in the early 21st century outside of all regimes of property and law. If ever there was an avant garde strategy that succeeded, this was it. It's the work that Benjamin's famous work of art in the age of mechanical reproducibility is actually doing. That essay is not about the aura, still less ritual; it's about property. As Marx and Engels say in the Manifesto, the real forces for social change are those that ask the 'property question'. In this regard, the main line that passes through the 20th century is from dada to the Situationists to guerrilla video and pirate radio, and on to 4chan and the whole social movement without a name that is the social life of the Internet. Information wants to be free and is everywhere breaking its chains.

Part of the work of the critical scholar is to rethink the prehistory of the present, something that Darren Tofts has done more than once. Fred Turner's book From Counterculture to Cyberculture has shown the roots of Silicon Valley to pass through Bay Area avant gardes. Perhaps one could think of this as one corner of a larger project to rethink the role of the avant gardes of media in the late twentieth century. At a time when critical theory had become hypocritical theory, obsessed with mourning its own lethargy, all sorts of avant garde projects were springing up all over the place.

The first 'publication' of Lev Manovich's signal work The Language of New Media was actually on the rhizome listserv. It generated debate across a number of lists, before coming out in book form. The book did a lot to consolidate a view of new media as a post-cinematic form, but the listserv discussion points in a different direction. What if the listserv, rather than the book or the movie, was the signal form of the late 20th century? It anticipates the social media era of the early twenty first century.

What one might call the Silver Age of social media stretches from the Usenet groups via The Well to the emergence of a critical new media network by the mid 90s. Central to the letter were listservs such as nettime, rhizome, faces, spectre, and in Australia, recode and fibreculture. They were a development, among other things, of the spirit of mechanical reproduction and détournement, with their free exchanges governed by loosely enforced codes of gift and countergift. Like all avant gardes, they inhabited a twilight zone in the evolution of media form. The Internet circa 1995 was not yet entirely circumscribed by the commodity form. It still betrayed its hybrid origins in academic culture and a military industrial complex just learning how to be, to coin a term, 'Paglenesque'.

But this is where one must leave the terrain of art and cultural history and turn instead to a broader framing. Early twentieth century modernism emerges at a time when capital has not fully incorporated cultural production. The big industries of the time are in things like steel and petrochemicals. By midcentury Adorno and Horkheimer will be writing about the culture industries, which to them have acquired both the scale and the production techniques of bureaucratic, industrial capitalism. But they see the culture industries as a subordinate part of capital as a whole.

By the early twenty-first century, it seems not unreasonable to see the production of signs and images as having broken free from a subordinate role in relation to the production of things. It's the latest stage in the abstraction of the commodity form. Property evolves from landed property to the joint stock company to the credit default swap and the mortgage backed security, not to mention so-called 'intellectual property', which seeks to recapture the spirit of collaborative reappropriation of the whole of human culture.

With hindsight, the culture industry thesis seems rather undialectical. Art could no longer function as the negation of the culture industry, even in Adorno's own time, let alone when art had ceased the pretense even to be modern and had become merely contemporary. But the missing term is not the popular, or 'participation' as Jenkins would have it. The missing term is the negation of the property form in culture, what the Situationists called détournement. It's only by asking the property question — again — that one steers the drunken boat of the avant garde away from the rocky shoals of relational aesthetics and 'prosumer' culture.

Which is not to say that the hacker culture of rip and remix can't also be recuperated. In place of the culture industries, we now have the vulture industries. These are not really interested in financing the production of cultural artifacts, as the old culture industries were. The vulture industries expect the 'user' to make her or his own content. They just want to collect the rent. The vulture industries no longer particularly care about the détournement of other people's intellectual property — but they hold tight to their own patents, their own algorithms, their brand image.

The genius of Google was to recuperate the free activity of a culture breaking loose from property and find a way to extract a rent from it. Facebook jumps into the gap in the Google strategy. Where Google can't get past a purely algorithmic understanding of the relationships that permeate a networked world, Facebook understood that these simply aggregated a certain qualitative dimension to relationships. A third strategy of recuperation takes the form of the game. If signs have broken free, both from meaning and from property relations, the game restores a semblance of order by assigning to them, if not meaning, then at least an algorithmic value.

It would seem then that the recuperation and extinction of the avant garde that Huyssen and others expected in the late twentieth century finally came to pass, only a few decades later. But one should not be so hasty. There's a constant ebb and flow to the relation between the avant garde experiment with new aesthetic forms for the non-commodifed social relation and the recuperation of these within new thresholds of abstraction of the commodity and property form. As Jorn says, the avant garde does not give up. It shifts terrains and tactics, finding other situations within which the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics might be set in play.

READ Tofts' essay 'Century of change? Media arts then and now.'


  1. Trevor Paglen, Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, Aperture, New York, 2010.
  2. T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1999.
  3. Peter Bürger, The Historic Avant Garde, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984.
  4. Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility' (Third version), Selected Writings, Vol. 4, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2003.
  5. See McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, Harvard University Press, 2001.
  6. Darren Tofts & Murray Keitch, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, Fine Art Publishing, Melbourne, 1998 and Darren Tofts et. al. (eds) Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2004.
  7. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008.
  8. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2001.
  9. Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry, Routledge, London, 2001.
  10. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, revised edition, NYU Press, New York, 2008.
  11. McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2007.
  12. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide, University of Indiana Press, Bloomington Il, 1986.

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