What Huyssen is calling for, then, is an avant-garde informed by a postmodern, rather than purely modern, perspective. He is asking that the naïve avant-garde of the past adapt to the conditions of a globalized capitalism without losing some of the still useful tactics that it has learned within the context of modernism. The artist must "break out of art's ivory tower and contribute to a change of everyday life" (Huyssen 157-58). By bringing the artist back into the public sphere, he reprimands both the aesthetic for renouncing politics, as well as the political for trivializing art: "Aesthetics should not be forgotten in such attempts to change everyday life. The aesthetic activity of human beings not only manifests itself in the iconic arts but in all spheres of human activity." (158) By insisting that aesthetics, like politics, permeates every aspect of life, he calls for a reconciliation between the political and the aesthetic. He pushes away, however, the modernist idea that there is one clear and true means for doing so. Instead, the path "will remain open to trial, error and debate" (221). The modernist response to the 'incomplete' project is thus called into question. Rather than seeing the loss of a clear end-point as a "lapse into irrationality or into apocalyptic frenzy," Huyssen suggests that the inevitability of incompletion "has opened up a host of possibilities for creative endeavors today" (217). The belief that one can, through revolutionary change or otherwise, travel down a specific and pre-determined trajectory, producing specific results at an incredibly complex social level, is a reformist fairy tale. This is not to say that one should not have plans when critiquing society, that one should blindly clash with the dominant ideologies and stare blankly in wonder when a space for negotiation is opened up. Rather, one should not expect a Utopian truth to come to fruition simply because the blueprint had been so carefully followed. Anyone who has lived in socially engineered housing 'projects' could tell you why the visionary insights of Le Corbusier's disciples fall far from the mark; anyone who had lived in Stalin's Soviet Union can explain how things do not always live up to revolutionary expectations.
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The modernist desire for autonomous art is in many ways mirrored in the avant-garde by a Marxist demand that culture be placed firmly within the superstructure. Art, in this perspective, is nothing more than another aspect of life determined by the underlying and universalizing economic base. Aesthetics subordinated to the base have no real power in and of themselves, but for Raymond Williams, such a model is extremely limiting and unrealistic (Williams 19). Instead, he suggests that we understand the arts as an individual imagining only accessible to the world in material ways. Our ideas are transmitted to others through paper, stone, canvas, and language (to name a few); and to exclude this material process from the more privileged processes of labor and capital is to overlook its importance in producing our understanding of the economic base (62). The superstructure and base cannot be separated from each other; aesthetics cannot be simply pulled away from its other cultural and political counterparts (81). However, neither should art be thought of as a perfect mirror of the base. Art is rather a representation of the economic conditions in which we live; and as a representation, it is in a position to both confirm and negotiate with economically-based ideology.
Williams suggests that if a major medium for representation, such as art, is found in the superstructure, but can successfully critique the base, then the superstructure itself has more revolutionary potential than orthodox Marxists believe. The superstructure, instead of being a simple base-determined location of reification, becomes a location of resistance. Williams' move away from ideological theory and toward a theory of hegemonic process allows art room to express itself beyond the language of society's dominant group:
A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a system or a structure. It is a realized complex of experiences, relationships, and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits. . . . The reality of any hegemony, in the extended political and cultural sense, is that, while by definition it is always dominant, it is never either total or exclusive (112-13).
This hegemonic process thus creates a space of negotiation, an ability to maintain some sense of agency outside of the dominant group, no matter how marginal that agency might seem. The superstructure, while often reinforcing the base and reifying its subjects, is also the space of representation for the subordinate groups in society; and it is these subordinate groups who are in a position to produce an effective avant-garde in the context of a postmodern base.
The shifting of the avant-garde into a postmodernist position is largely due to the loosening of the base-as-determinant model. Williams explains that there is no simple binary between old and new. He favors an inter-relational perspective over the alleged breaks with the past that were so favored in modernism, orthodox Marxism, and the historical avant-garde (121). As part of the hegemonic process, cultural and economic shifts occur through a gradual negotiation, rather than all at once. The dominant is of course the most directly influential, but from the limits of the dominant are always the voices of the residual and the emergent. The residual, which was formed in the past but is still active in the current hegemony (122), does not disappear simply because the dominant claims to have broken free from the old. The emergent - new values, practices and relationships that challenge the dominant position as such - do not spring up overnight: even wildcat strikes and so-called spontaneous revolutions build up to a flash point over time and through dialog with the dominant. These palimpsests of influence shape each other, and in this way, the avant-garde can move into the context of postmodernity, layering ideas that it brings from modernism with newer concepts of postmodernism.
What must be sought in a postmodern avant-garde is agency through marginality, power in the position of the subordinate. The subordinate finds itself forced to speak itself through the context of the dominant. However, the hegemonic process shows that the subordinate can still produce a space of negotiation. Michel de Certeau, in Practices of Everyday Life, claims that the rules of the dominant society are etched into the very space within which we live (de Certeau 21-22). The reader of this space need not be passive: "[The reader] insinuates into another person's text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation: he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it like the internal rumblings of one's body." (xxi) The marginal and subordinate may be forced to reside in a repressive space by the dominant; however, it can superimpose its own readings upon the spatial text, appropriating that space for its own use. This is a plurality in which the dominant order does not disappear, but rather is contested by a new 'reading' (30).
What de Certeau describes is the use of 'tactic' by the weak, who "must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them" (de Certeau xix). The dominant can rely on strategy, or over-arching meta-narratives, when asserting itself. As the dominant, it can establish itself in space, constructing a sense of home and permanence. From this position, it can produce entire mythologies that solidify a singular narrative as a reified truth. The subordinate, on the other hand, can be defined by its "absence of a proper locus" (37). Without a home and without permanence, "it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power" (37). Thus the new avant-garde cannot rely on permanence. It is sealed off from the space of the gallery and museum, as well as the ivory tower of the academy. To enter this space would be to move into the realm of strategy. For the subordinate, then, mobility is its greatest asset. Attempting to be at home in the space of the dominant would be equivalent to a guerrilla force squaring off with a superior military body. This avant-garde must instead operate in "isolated actions, blow by blow" (37). It must accept a position of impermanence, and see the advantages that this position provides. It must seek out and exploit the possibilities hidden within the dominant space, abandoning one opportunity for another when the dominant comes to patch up the hole. While this may seem futile at first, it opens up a space that can never be entirely contained by the dominant: "One thus has the very relationship between spatial practices and the constructed order. The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order." (107) Through subordinates' constant and temporary exploitations, through counter-readings and recontextualizations, rich palimpsests of meaning are revealed underneath the reified space of the dominant. The avant-garde can take on this role within the aesthetic sphere.
Charles Jencks, the architect and theorist, works on a similar premise as de Certeau. For him, postmodernism "attempt[s] to cut across the spectrum of tastes with a variety of styles: thus it seeks a radical eclecticism, or multiple-coding" (Jencks 13). This is an aesthetic response to what he calls the "mythical modern man" (33), for whom a great deal of architecture was developed. Of course, this 'universal' man does not exist beyond the mind of the architect, and so the structures that were consequently built had little if anything to do with the needs and desires of the actual people living within them. Instead, Jencks wants to move architecture toward a style that reveals all readings as equally permissible. He stresses the importance of a "participatory design" that includes the residents in its conception. This "gives the designer a respect for codes and tastes which are not necessarily his own" (73). The avant-garde must also work within this participatory realm. The elite spaces of the academy have in the past absorbed and neutralized the avant-garde's revolutionary potential. To avoid this, it must remain loosely knit, quickly moving, and comfortable in temporariness. Communal art, art of the public sphere, art that can be touched, altered, even abused by those other than the original artist - this is the space of the new avant-garde.
It is important to understand that the tactics of postmodern resistance emerge largely from the marginalized and exploited people of our contemporary world. Linda Hutcheon, in The Politics of Postmodernism, directly connects the broad postmodern perspective to the specifics of feminism. She considers postmodern art to be political in that all representation is inherently such, but feels that it often lacks a means toward political action. Rather, it functions as a de-naturalizing tool on reified ideologies, revealing the devices that the dominant group has made invisible to the subordinates (Hutcheon 3). Through "difference and ex-centricity" (5), it exposes the binary tension of borders - both physical and conceptual - and makes it difficult to ignore the marginalized (18). Superstructural resistance thus arises not from an art-school postmodernism, but rather from one existing at the limits of the dominant order; the new avant-garde emerges out of representations from "the women, blacks, gays, Native Peoples, and others who have made us aware of the politics of all - not just postmodern - representations" (17).
Of course the dominant still has the advantage of being able to define the space in which conflict and negotiation will emerge. The postmodern, however, allows the marginal to expose the gaps and contradictions in this space. Hutcheon explains that feminist artists can thus use historical representations through a postmodern perspective in order to deconstruct and recontextualize those very same representations (102). They can then take that step from a postmodern explication of the underlying ideology in the dominant terrain to an avant-garde argument for a revision of this ideology, and, therefore, a "transformation of patriarchal social practices" (168). Such a change would tactically alter the dominant space, and to successfully alter the strategic is to alter the dominant itself.
It should not be assumed that all feminist theory will fit comfortably within the framework that Linda Hutcheon sets down. Rather, various strains of feminism which have proven successful in certain situations, fall awkwardly short in others. Chela Sandoval, in Methodologies of the Oppressed, attempts to work on this very problem through her reading of U.S. third world feminism. Sandoval suggests that feminists marked with eccentric labels such as 'mestiza,' 'queer,' and 'women of color,' have developed a feminism that tactically combines differing feminist frameworks into a "shifting place of mobile codes and significations" (Sandoval 32-33). Remapping identity through such a fluid tactic is necessary for a postmodern avant-garde to survive the hegemonic process.
Sandoval contends that this is a feminism existing within the context of the woman decentered at the intersection of a variety of social hierarchies, such as gender, race, nationality, and sexuality. The U.S. third world feminist has developed tactical skills of survival where one must "juggle, transgress, differ, buy, and sell ideologies" (29). Sandoval's 'differential consciousness' is thus a kind of double coding which allows her to move "'between and among' ideological positionings" (57). She can engage and disengage with a particular feminist framework when most advantageous (57). It is a consciousness that moves away from a modernist comfort in totality and toward a postmodern comfort with indeterminacy. Similarly, it is an act of resistance that acknowledges such negotiation as occurring at the intersection of various aspects of the superstructure (163). Race, gender, and class, for example, can not be properly understood by themselves. Through differential consciousness, an artist may shift from one storyline to the next, with the awareness that each is informed by the others.
Differential consciousness opens up a space for a wide range of postmodern avant-garde artists to act as a radical force within the aesthetic/political arena. Sandoval insists that in the postmodern world of transnational capitalism, all subjects are entering a similar position as the third world subject in the past (26). Of course, the unique context of the marginalized feminist that helped produce this tactic could not be the same context of a white male artist living in upstate New York. However, the basic concept can certainly move across boundaries. Even members of the dominant can learn to use tactical maneuvers to question their own position. The ways in which these tactics are used and the forms in which they manifest would not be the same for everyone: the Chicano mural will not work for an Anglo artist, but the concept of a mobile and multi-coded public art can function for anyone. As Sandoval informs us, "the effectivity of cultural mapping depends on its practitioner's continuing and transformative relationship to the social totality" (29). The avant-garde can use space through ideas of differential consciousness. What ideologies are used differentially, however, may change from artist to artist.
Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army attempted to re-merge the cultural and political avant-garde in his own postmodern fashion. While clearly a politician and guerrilla, Marcos is also described by Ilan Stavans as a storyteller who waged war primarily through letters (Stavans 50). Donning a ski mask and pipe, he took full advantage not of any physical prowess or superior skills as a guerrilla fighter, but of the media attention that he could produce through his staged appearances: "He was a master of marketing. By presenting himself as a down-to-earth dissenter, a nonconformist, a hipster dressed up as soldier, he made it easy to feel close to him" (55). Along with his public speeches, he sent out over 300 pages worth of letters and stories without copyright, thereby ensuring their access to the public (55). Marcos' aesthetic battle did in no way exist within a vacuum. Rather, it worked in conjunction with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. By themselves, they may have had little real effect, but together, they sparked the attention and curiosity of people around the world. However, when he was figuratively de-masked by the Mexican government (presumably he is the ex-college professor Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente), he removed himself from the position of voice for the Zapatista movement (56). He understood the tactical necessity to remain mobile when the dominant threatens to contain resistance.
Street art can still take the avant-garde further into the public sphere of the everyday. The Chicano murals of Los Angeles were first produced in conjunction with el Movimiento, or the Chicano movement, in the 1970s. The movement focused on a rejection of assimilation into Anglo-American culture by instead "celebrating their multilingual, binational identity and Native American heritage or mestizaje" (Gaspar de Alba 41). Murals would be painted within Chicano communities, depicting a range of Mexican and 'American' aspects of radical heritage, from Emilio Zapata to Geronimo. Victor Ochoa's mixture of traditional and contemporary images from both sides of the border, threaded together with pre-Columbian motifs, evokes the concept of Aztlán, the location of origin for the Aztec people (42). Aztlán has, through the Chicano movement, become equated with the southwestern United States. This equation ties together a utopian mythology of the past with depictions of contemporary American life in many L.A. murals. It represents a hope in an oppressed people to find a sense of home in these borderlands. While it does not necessarily imply a physical reclamation of lost land, it at least implies a cultural reappropriation (43).
This public art clearly exists in relation to political rhetoric. In fact, Victor A. Sorell suggests that one would be hard pressed to find Chicano art that does not in some way refer back to the political sphere of Chicano activists (Sorell 143). Other street artists, such as the poster artist Manuel J. Martinez, was directly involved in the Poor Peoples Campaign, Gonzales's Crusade for Justice, and the radical newspaper, El Gallo (144). Judith Baca, director of The Great Wall of Los Angeles, combined in her mural the untold histories of various groups, demanding that multiple narratives be heard at once. Furthermore, she involved the marginalized local community in her project by hiring gang-related graffiti and tattoo artists to help her produce her masterpiece (148). The Great Wall alone used over four hundred youths from the community, varying in ethnicity and economic background. Her groups, the Mural Program in the City of Los Angeles and the Social and Public Art Resource Center, produced nearly five hundred murals across Los Angeles (Sanchez 12). By directly involving the community, she allows the otherwise elitist position of herself as artist to be relinquished by others' interpretations of her design. It is no longer the great artist, theorist, or politician, looking down upon the people whom they subject to their work, deciding what will be best for them. Rather, it is a dialog between the artist and the audience, where the audience influences the outcome of the art. George Sanchez refers to Baca's work as "a monument to crossing disciplinary borders, as well as the boundaries between academic and community involvement" (12). It is an avant-garde that allows a politicized aesthetic to be heard and reinterpreted by "multiple publics" (16).
Jeff Ferrell reminds us that this kind of public art does not always originate from intentionally political artists. He explains that some artists are forced into reconsidering the meaning of their own work when the dominant culture actively suppresses their ability to create public art. The 'Bomb Shelter,' an abandoned railroad maintenance building in Denver, was used by graffiti artists as a space where ideas could be exchanged and pieces developed. These hidden artists grew from the interstices of the city, nurtured by a kind of "street level communication" (Ferrell 180) that crosses the borders of economic status, race, and ethnicity. As the subculture grew, local art publications became increasingly conscious of the scene, and labeled the Bomb Shelter the "unofficial Denver Museum of Graffiti" (186). However, the emergence of a uncontrolled and unregulated voice was not acceptable in this city: the Bomb Shelter was finally demolished under the promise of urban renewal (186). Yet this silencing is an erasure, not an obliteration. Bricks from the old building were collected by local artists and collectors for the graffiti found covering them. In this way, palimpsests form in the mainstream where the subordinate narratives find a foothold to decenter the dominant.
Ferrell writes also of the Towering Inferno, an old flour mill that proved to be a "richly occupied public space" (Ferrell 191). The empty building was in fact layered with alternative narratives unacknowledged by the dominant narrative of the city: the graffiti of hip hop artists, Crips, Bloods, North Side Mafia, and skinheads (188). The inscription of a single place with the graffiti of so many contradictory and differing voices opens up a space of negotiation rather than monologic oppression. The city, however, believed that all outsider narratives can be expelled from its borders through violent acts of silencing. The graffiti culture was thus referred to as a 'sickness' (191). The Towering Inferno was torn down and replaced by the half-million-dollar "Flour Mill Lofts" (193). The poor, the nameless, the silenced, were shoved once more ever deeper into the corners of the city. Regardless of gentrification, the poor do not cease to exist. Indeed, their voices become only more urgent. As graffiti artist Omar says, "Even if you're poor, you can live your life like it's a work of art" (qtd in Ferrell 182).
The versatility of the postmodern avant-garde can be seen not just through cans of Krylon spray paint, but also through the use of new mediums, such as in the works of the urban projectionists. While still in its infancy, people like Ivan Martinez and performance groups like TXTual Healing are testing the limits of this video art. TXTual Healing projects cartoon speech bubbles onto the walls of city buildings. The text inside the bubbles, however, is determined by an audience given a phone number to which they can send cell phone text messages. The system is entirely automated and uncensored, giving an otherwise anonymous public a chance to exercise their voice both within the aesthetic and public spheres. TXTual Healing hopes "to engage an audience to think about the physical spaces we move through, live in and share. I'm trying to address public vs. private space and what kind of dialogue might transpire if we shared our private thoughts and stories in public" (Paul Notzold). Similarly, Miami-based Ivan Martinez has produced an 'installment' that he calls "Fear Itself...Yea Right," in which he projects a running man and a speech bubble from a moving car onto the passing urban landscape. Connected to a laptop, Martinez can alter the text any time he wants, often reacting to the environment through which he passes. Onto the wall of a high end hotel, he projects "WOW! How much did this cost? Looks nice. Can me and a couple hundred of my homeless friends live in it?" On the side of a sports arena, he types "I love downtown's revitalization, but where are the poor people?" (Martinez) Like TXTual Healing, he also allows the public to suggest words for him to type into the bubble. In both accounts, these avant-garde artists are experimenting with a mobile and temporary public art, a graffiti that vanishes as easily as it is projected, an interactive public installment that can deal with subjects of relevancy for a particular group of people within a particular urban space at a particular moment in time. This is the tactical position to which the avant-garde must aspire.
Perhaps no one takes the tactical impermanence of postmodern space further than the performance artist, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. In his collection of essays, Dangerous Border Crosser, he explains many of his 'Public Interventions', where the border between the street and the stage is dissolved. For example, his troupe, dressed as a hypermasculine "CyberVato", a "hypersexual Selena," and a wheelchair-bound "burnt out Norteño singer," interacted with a historically Latino community that was threatened by the ever-encroaching narrative of gentrification (Gómez-Peña 66). By producing in the street an "alternative space without walls," Gómez-Peña and his friends connected to various marginalized individuals in the community with whom they may have otherwise never come into contact (67). At the same time, his books have been published by academic-oriented presses, describing and interpreting his actions for scholars far from the Barrio. It is this kind of postmodern double-coding that Gómez-Peña insists on from both the performances of avant-garde artists as well as the everyday life of conscious members of society: "Be an "outsider/insider," a temporary member of multiple communities. We need to be everywhere: in the media, in academia, in the major institutions as well as in the community-based ones" (94).
Like the projectionists, Gómez-Peña understands that new media open up new spaces of contestation. He suggests that community artists learn to "re-map the hegemonic cartography of cyberspace" - a philosophy put into action through his own website, www.pochanostra.com (259). The ability to cross the "digital border without documents" (258) produces a space for the subordinate to negotiate vocally with the dominant. These digital spaces of the internet are vaguely defined at best, and are therefore prime locations for silenced voices to trickle into the dominant narrative. Using this space to his advantage, Gómez-Peña wants to exploit the holes in the dominant's sense of containment, totality, and security. He calls for "innovative, grassroots applications for new technologies [. . .] [that can] link community centers, artistic collectives, and human rights organizations by means of the Internet" (260). In this way, he sees new means for building a space that eases the connection between a politicized art and a politicized community. This connection is precisely what the avant-garde must nurture.
Art alone will not change the world. While it can be a powerful tool for critiquing society, it is but one small aspect of a much larger superstructure. Only by working these various aspects together can change come about. The private and public spheres must interact with one another. The supposed 'high' arts have their place in the museum and in the gallery; but if they intend to produce change, they must be willing to also abandon such locations and accept the uncomfortable embrace of mass culture. It is in street performance, guerrilla art, mural work, and graffiti - both in the flesh and digital - that a critical consciousness can spread beyond the few who have the time, money, and specialized language to enjoy the elite art of the academy. The avant-garde must work in conjunction with activism, as an avant-garde divorced from politics is nothing more than a pretty picture. It must be conscious of the space produced through the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity - to name a few - before it can hope to successfully navigate and negotiate this space. It must be at ease with ephemerality and the tactical instability of differential consciousness. Only then can it hope to produce resistance without a clear end, revolution with no utopia in sight. Only then can change occur: not through total breaks with the old, but rather through a continual repetition, negotiation and variation. Once the refined aesthetics of a postmodern avant-garde learns to reengage itself with the world outside of art, then we may finally see a means through which art can threaten the reified stasis of society.
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Copyright 2010 by Dylan Winchock
Sobriquet Magazine #66
Volume 16, Number 5