Materials vs Us – review of New Art West Midlands 2018

The New Art West Midlands competition and exhibition is now an annual event. It showcases a selection of up-and-coming pieces from emerging artists in the area. This is the third time I’ve been to at least one of the exhibitions (the works are shown in a number of locations around the area) and each time I find much to inspire me.

The phrase that kept coming to my mind as I walked around the artworks selected for this year’s New Art West Midlands on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was ‘human-material interaction’.

There is great variety in the artworks on show in Birmingham this year (and elsewhere, alas I have yet to visit the other venues) encompassing video, digital, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, print and material.

Each piece in Birmingham appeared very different from each other, yet there was a clear commonality and relationship between them. That is that we impact on materials and materials impact on us.

As artists, we have a vast array of material and media available to us in the 21st century. In fact, I’d even say that more-or-less anything goes. We are able to pick a material and mould it into something of our choosing in order to convey an idea or imbue it with a meaning for the viewer to take on board or an ‘essence’ for the viewer to feel. 

I do this with my creative endeavors. My art practice is concept-driven and I pick the material I think best suits the concept, rather than putting myself in a situation where the material brings forth a concept, or something that suits, or is chosen by, that material. I suspect that many artists today operate in the same way. This means that as artists we have to be multi-talented, or, at least very brave in experimentation. 

The artists in this exhibition display both bravery with their use of materials and originality of concept. They embrace with open arms the varied material world of the current age. This is admirable. Not only that, they cross the boarders between the various materials. They blend – sound mixed with sculpture, painting mixed with digital effects, projection and objects. 

There is much to see and feel essence from in this exhibition, but the work that resonated the most for me was Jessica Eburne’s TR project. Her project is inspired by repetitive and ritualistic trends found in our relationship with current technology. T stands for technology and R stands for religion. They may seem vastly different, but they are not. Technology has become a new religion for us. For this project she created an interactive shrine to the social media world. The shrine is combined with a stream of a Alexa- or Siri-style conversation which is in text format and audible format.

The shrine. 

Also looking at social media and how it impinges on our ‘real’ or ‘material’ lives is Bryony Loveridge’s piece ‘A Self Reflection’. This consisted of a wall of mirrors adorned with decorations of various styles and types. The effect is similar to the one you get on screen when looking at Instagram or Pinterest. Looking at the mirrors is like looking at a wall of attractive, beautified selfies at the same time as looking at ‘pretty’ but deliberately chosen decorations or ideas. I felt slightly disembodied, yet curious. I felt like Alice.

Looking at me looking at me.

And of course I have to mention the work of my old tutor, Simon Harris. His paintings evoke a contemporary sublime reaction for me, if that makes sense. I feel the sublime yet I feel I am in a world between the real and unreal. I find the slightly ‘digital’ feel to his paintings, which are clearly not digital, fascinating. Ironically, it is impossible to get that same effect viewing his paintings online. Here is yet another example of a blending of the material with the immaterial, the notions of real and virtual or digital. This painting isn’t digital, yet it appears to have a digital element or effect.

A painting that does not work online

Despite the links with the digital, virtual worlds in all of the artworks on display, or at least, in many of them, overall they appeared to be unexpectedly very tactile, interactive, and visually exciting. I like that irony.


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Jerwood Drawing Prize 2017 – things that blend

Every year I go out of my way to visit the Jerwood Drawing Prize exhibition. My first love is drawing. I don’t draw as much as I’d like to. I spent a lot of my final year on the BA in Fine Art drawing but before, and since, I haven’t done nearly as much as I’d like. I love to draw. Drawing is part of my nature. Drawing, to me, is the most intimate, basic, way I can express my creativity. It is simple, all I need is something which makes a mark or a dent, or just a line. I can draw with my finger, I can draw with my dinner, I can draw with almost anything.

Every year the same question is posed by the Jerwood Drawing Prize: what is drawing today? I find this a strange question. Why do they like to include ‘today’? Drawing hasn’t changed since, for ever. The tools may have changed but the verb hasn’t. Drawing is what it is. It is drawing. It is creating a line on a surface along a finite plane. It can be either a introspective, personal activity or it can be a communal, noisy activity. It is a pull of or on something. It can be a taking away of something. It is creating a presence or creating an absence. Stories draw. It it intimacy, authenticity, nakedness and rawness. It can happen in this universe. It can happen on a flat surface, a bumpy one, in two-dimensions, in three-dimensions, in a virtual reality universe and even, via text, speech, video, collage or three-dimensional materials. These ideas are not new and contemporary. Drawing hasn’t changed at all.

There were a number of highlights for me to this year’s exhibition. There always are. I find it hard to pick a few to discuss. Every time I leave the exhibition, I feel energised and creative, desperate to draw. This time was no exception. I feel that I am open to the stretching of the outer limits of the definition of drawing but each time there is something new which makes me stretch even further my idea of what exactly drawing can be, or what tools can be used, new tools and existing tools.

Two video pieces stand out as interesting to me. The first, by Elisa Allaluusa, called ‘The Arctic Circle (Part II)’ was a simple, parallel (seemingly, apparently it took of manpower a lot to create) shot of someone walking in snow from the point of view of looking down at their feet and from a distance. It was hypnotic. The sound of the crunch of the snow was comforting. It was a quiet meditation on line. I found it absorbing. It was a drawing in snow.

It inspired me to make this video on the next day: me walking around Bath.

The other video piece that caught my attention was called ‘On Drawing’ by Ana Mendes. This video showed an elderly lady, speaking in French (with subtitles in English), talking through her system of how she remembers phone numbers. She is unable to read, so in order to located phone numbers she draws pictures adjacent to each number that remind her of each person. In the video, we see her elderly hands flicking through the note books, stopping at various places to explain the drawings and the characters of the people. I thought this was such a simple concept, yet so engaging. There was nothing complicated about the video and the narrative takes the viewer into the personal history of the subject and her relations with various people she keeps phone numbers of. This video is about drawing but is also a sort of drawing as well. The narration draws the story of the elderly lady’s life history.

On Drawing by Ana Mendes

I also liked a piece called ‘Eighteen Occasions’ by Rebecca Swindell. This, again, wasn’t a conventional ‘drawing’ as such. The piece consists of a box containing eighteen corks, all with text written on them to describe the occasion that the wine was drunk. Any ‘art of the object’ is going to appeal to me and I loved this for its quirkiness and cheeky take on the concept of drawing. Objects can be used to reflect our life’s narrative, as with the phone number drawings above, and this I find fascinating. 

Eighteen Occasions by Rebecca Swindell

Some of the pieces in the exhibition seemed aimed at blending the boundaries between the categories of creativity. One such piece, ‘Borderlines’ by Lucinda Burgess, using drawing to create a sculpture-like structure. This work was vast and very impressive, given the labour that must have gone into it, the sheer amount of raw material and the final effect, which is completely sculptural, yet it is still a drawing.

Borderlines by Lucinda Burgess

What this year’s exhibition has successfully shown, with these works and many others, is that the line between ‘drawings’ and other manifestations of objects, real or surreal, can be crossed, objects really do blend and blur. Perhaps they always have, we just haven’t noticed.

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‘Digitally born’: drawing in a parallel plane

This week I attended a one-day drawing symposium in Walsall that existed on another dimension to the one in which I sit now. 

The symposium was held at the base of Urban Hax CIC market space in Walsall, which is a well-hidden hive of creative people from all sorts of disciplines, crossing the boundaries of art, science and technology, who work and play in an old warehouse down a back street in the town.

Where I went to in Walsall

The title of the symposium was Drawing in Virtual Reality. Before I went there, I had little idea of what to expect. I was in the high percentage of people (and even higher percentage of women) who had never experienced virtual reality, let alone used it as an artistic tool. I entered the room blind.

The creative space where we drew using virtual reality

I left the room, eight hours later, floating on a cloud of astonishment and wonder. In that short time I experienced the bizarre hyper-reality that is drawing in another realm, a digital 3D realm, the virtual reality realm. This realm is hypnotic, addictive and beautiful. I left feeling as if I had taken a drug and entered a hallucinogenic in-my-mind state. Yet, ironically, I also left feeling that I had travelled somewhere very real and very concrete. Somewhere I couldn’t articulate.

Me under the influence

The after effect of the day surprised me. I went home and I was completely and utterly mentally exhausted, but in a good way. But it was an exhaustion that I hadn’t experienced before. I wanted to write about the experience that evening but I found I was unable to. I needed time to process the experience in my rational ‘of this world’ head. I couldn’t even write about it on the following day. It is now the day after that. I now feel able to express how I felt about the experience.

The best way to describe virtual reality drawing is drawing in a parallel dimension to the dimension we live in. Paradoxically, a dimension that in some ways is linked to and in others is vastly different to this existence. However, it is hard to articulate in more detail using words of the world I sit in now what being there is really like. It exists beyond signs and symbols. I do not have the language to narrate the picture of what it the beginning-to-end experience is like.

One way to try to illustrate, or narrate, what I went through is to talk about the many philosophical questions which were thrown up by this experience, on the nature of drawing and the nature of the reality and the tangibility of things. These are just a few of them.

What is the relative value of permanence vs temporarility in art? Virtual reality is temporal and ethereal by nature, yet the art created in that realm can be made permanent, as it can be stored and saved, and even printed, yet the permanent record doesn’t resemble the experience so is it the same? No.

The physicality of drawing that the artist experiences in virtual reality drawing is completely different from the experience of drawing on a flat plain in this world. This caused me to ask whether drawing in space in such a very physical, kinetic way is a skill separate from drawing on a solid surface. I think so. I am not a physical person. I am quite clumsy, possibly slightly dispraxic, so I found this element of the excerise quite challenging. 

Is virtual reality drawing in fact sculpture and not drawing at all? Drawing in 3D space feels very much like creating a 3D model, albeit an ethereal rather than a solid one. The drawing the artist makes has three dimensions, it has depth. You cannot draw flat. It is impossible. I am a 2D drawer, I am not a 3D sculpture, I found it very difficult to add the z axis to my thoughts and ideas and movements.

Contradicting the above, virtual reality drawing could be argued as not sculpting either. There is no solid surface, there is no tension, there is no material. Should it have a category independent of any ‘of this world’ artistic endevour? Or is it just another medium of drawing, given that ‘drawing’ is such a broad discipline and can encompass drawing on a steamed window with a finger, creating patterns with a sparkler in the dark (where there is only a tiny feeling of tension), moving a ribbon in space, taking a line for a walk?

Is this an opening into the future of art where all art will one day be ‘digitally born’ rather than ‘materially born’? Could all art one day never go through a material existence? Some art already does exist like that. Could art (or all creativity) be singularly digitally born, kept, shown and archived? I posed this question on social media and the answer was a resounding no. The feeling was that this ‘digitally born’ way of creating will run alongside existing means of creating, other ‘digitally born’ methods such as drawing on a tablet and the more traditional ‘materially born’ methods of creating. I’m inclined to agree. I think this new medium should be embraced and the possibilities of its use alongside material media could be extremely exciting.

Is virtual drawing (and perhaps some forms of ‘real world’ drawing) a form of dance? If you observe someone drawing while ‘under’ the spell of the virtual reality software, they appear to be engaged in a strange, smooth and flowing ritualistic dance. It is quite surreal. They are physically in the world outside, yet mentally elsewhere and this takes away any consciousness of body movement. The artist moves with fluidity. Perhaps even I, as clumsy and dispraxic as I might be, moved with ease. I don’t know. I wasn’t ‘there’ I was elsewhere.

Is there a confining element to VR drawing, in that you cannot draw from observation? This offers both a restriction and a freedom. The only image you have to go on is in your head, whether it be self-generated or memory. As an artist who draws a great deal from the observation of material objects, I found this aspect the most challenging. I had to use my imagination. I had to enter my head. I don’t like entering my head. Is there something potentially probing about the use of VR drawing to generate content from the psyche of an artist?

How should the viewer of the VR-generated drawing best experience it? Is it adequate for the drawing to be printed out and displayed as a 2D frame? Could the drawing be printed by a 3D printer to retain the dimensional element to it? That would give it substance, keeping the dimensions, so would change the nature of the original. Are these ‘copies’, whether 2D or 3D, as valid as the original? Is their difference interesting? Or alternatively, the viewer enter the 3D virtual world and explore the drawing as the artist did? Does it then become an installation and not a drawing? Can multiple viewers experience the same drawing in this way, at the same time? Possibly. There seems to be so much scope for this. How ‘real’ is that experience for the viewer, if it isn’t ‘real’ in the first place? Is it naive to divorce the notions of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ when we exist in both worlds so much already – they blend, they are not opposites, our real and virtual lives coexist and that is a reality that should not be ignored and in fact needs to be embraced more than it  currently is. What is real anyway? Does it matter?

While under the influence of the virtual reality experience, which was only a few minutes, I didn’t produce a work of art, far from it. I tried to ‘draw’ an office chair. It wasn’t a thing of beauty or elegance. Yet it was a thing and my art practice is all about things. As fascinated as I am with real things that I can touch in my real life existence I am fascinated with our virtual possessions and depictions of our possessions in the real and virtual world. In fact, I am more interested in the relationship between the two and whether they are in fact different from each other or not. So a related question could be, was my drawing a thing at all? I can’t touch it. So it wasn’t a thing perhaps, if a thing has to be tangible. It wasn’t even a drawing of a chair. It was a chair in space outside of my mind yet not of this world. It existed while I was ‘under’ yet didn’t once I came out and I can’t reenter that world. There is a version of it as seen on the computer screen but this is not the same as the version of it as I drew it. This mirrors the experience we have when we dream. We cannot record or capture our dreams, yet they are tangible in our minds. It just isn’t a tangibility in the traditional sense.

My chair

Thinking about all of this again, it is no wonder I was so exhausted the evening after the drawing symposium. Cliched though it might be to say, it was mind blowing.

I cannot wait to try this again. In way of conclusion I ponder now whether in the future all artists will have VR technology at their disposal and all museums will have the means to display interactive, drawing installations created using VR technology. That would be quite amazing. I am sure I will live to see this and I hope I can be a part of it.


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Things you find in the compost heap: Object Relations – a Review

I am fascinated with things, objects, stuff. They have always been central to my art practice. It is for them which I draw, paint, photograph, write, talk and live. I’ve always been interested in objects and in particular, our relationship to them relative to our relationship to everything else we touch in our lives.

One of the objects I have previously been obsessed with: the abandoned balloon

So when I came across this exhibition at the Nuneaton Art Gallery and Museum, and a panel discussion with the exhibiting artists, I knew it would interest me. 

The event

In addition, I happened to know the two artists, as they are both lecturers at University of Wolverhampton where I am doing my MA by Research, so that was another very good reason for me to attend. 

Object Relations is essentially an exhibition of things and the connection those things have with their environment, including us. It is an exhibition of things as seen through paint and photography on one level, and through the eyes of two very different minds on another.

Knowing the artists meant also that I had some insight into the their personalities before I went to the discussion and exhibition. One is a painter, the other a photographer. One has a more organic, instinctive practice. The other is very methodical, almost scientific in his approach. One is messy (in a good, creative way). The other isn’t (in a good, creative way). This fact alone is interesting when viewing the work on display.

I learnt from the panel discussion that before either of the artists had any thoughts of an exhibition, independent of each other, they decided to study objects. Neither of them had an end in sight. They just had an interest and went with the flow: Christian Mieves, through paint, and Euripides Altintzoglou, through photography. They were both experimenting, with no end intention. They were both looking into how random objects relate to their environment, how they themselves relate to objects and how the indexical relationship between the artist then the object then the viewer could be ruptured in some way, either partly or fully. They wanted to depict these objects through their chosen media.

In his studio, Mieves created several very large paintings of many and few random objects in the studio space. He painted with freedom and without much prior thought or decision making. He just painted. He didn’t follow what he saw strictly, in terms of form or colour, he just reacted.

Altinzoglou, meanwhile, started taking photographs of random objects. He took photos allowing the camera to make errors. He was interested in the effect this would create. He just wanted to see what would happen.

They both hoped to take something simple, complicate it, and simplify it again. They both wanted to consider themselves, the material, the effect.

Not having known about this exhibition until recently, I wondered how they had come to unite for this exhibition and how they had found a common ground knowing how different they appear from each other. Yet, it is clear from looking at the pieces on display that the two bodies of work have a clear bond: things. They might at first appear very different: variously-sized paintings, same-sized photographs; textured surface, sheen surface; many colours, few colours; painting, photography. In fact, the contrasts are just superficial. The uniting factor, objects in their environment, is extremely strong.

I learnt that they came together, by chance, and realised they were doing the same thing. The result: a series of painted objects in their environment on canvas as colours, light, background blended together and a series of square light boxes showing photographs of objects as colour, form, shape and mysticism. I have deliberately not included photographs here. One of the significant points about these pieces is that they work so well because of the physicality and, in some ways, the agency, of the material when seen in person. That can not be translated online.

As I sat and listened to the panel discussion I spotted a number of really interesting ironies  or contradictions about the artists’ practices, responses to their artworks and the artworks themselves.

Aim: freedom / lack of planning or pre-thought.
Result: a fascinating intellectual context (object-ground relations, phenomenological starting point-ontological result, defiguration of the figurative into something partially abstract, temporality of the placement of objects in space, medium-specificity of paint and photography to name a few of the themes).

Aim: a private experiment, not intended for the viewing public.
Result: framed images in an exhibition.

Aim: to examine recognisable objects.
Result: a blurring, blending, abstractional study of colour, shape, form, light.

Aim: messy practice, experimental.
Result: order and beauty.

Aim: a simple process, a letting go of all the chaos and complication of much contemporary art thinking.
Result: busyness, movement, mess, depth, chaos (and to some extent, this contradicts the above contradiction).

The chair of the panel discussion, Andrew Bracey, who is also an artist, came up with an interesting metaphor to describe the process that both artists had used and the contents of their heads: a compost heap. A compost heap contains all of our waste, it breaks down that waste and turns it into something fertile. It is about a loss of control, an organic process, a liberating process and a reactionary process. The artwork in this exhibition, and the thinking behind the artworks, is just that. 

My brain

I like that idea. I like the idea of having a compost heap of thoughts in my head, and what I have learnt from this discussion and the exhibition is perhaps I just need to let my ideas and thoughts ferment and react, and they will then create something new and interesting, and with depth that can be found rather than before the process, after the process.

I think I will try that.

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Delving so deep, the world becomes black

To contrast with painting on a white background, I decided to try painting on a black background. I have found this incredibly difficult. It is much easier to get a smooth, even surface with white paint. Black paint is much more troublesome. I’m not sure whether my attempts to date are successful or not. I am erring on the ‘not’ side but I’m not going to give up yet. I don’t think I have got the technique right and I am frustrated by the unevenness of the black paint. There is potential for atmosphere with these paintings, but the objects are, rather than standing out as on the white background, flattened. They are devoid of life. They are dead.

The black background is more ‘black’ than it appears in the photograph. The highlights of the object blend into the black in the actual painting. In fact, it is hard to identify this object.

Black velvet

As food is a theme, I decided to go for a traditional still-life subject: the bunch of grapes.

Dead grapes?

Painting grapes in black and white has the effect of completely killing them. They don’t look at all appetising. I’m not sure that this painting works, though, so further experimentation is needed. 

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Delving even deeper into the darkness of the monochrome world

Black and white is still my obsession. The world in colour is starting to look quite odd to me when in my art and in my head it is firmly in black and white at the moment. I have become quite addicted to monochrome painting now and I can’t seem to stop painting without colour. I don’t quite know what it is about the ‘colours’ black, white and grey that fascinate me so much. I just love the challenge of taking out colour, not thinking about colour and blending with two shades. It is almost as if I am drawing with paint.

In this current journey, I have been deliberately selecting objects that rely heavily on colour as part of their identity. These objects have come to my mind randomly as I’ve been walking around the house, such as this one.

Rubik’s Cube

I quite like the idea of a monochrome Rubik’s Cube, with six shades of grey. 

I have also been looking at skin tone in greys, which has been more difficult than ordinary objects. The essence of the appearance of skin loses the qualities of warmth and life once you remove the colour from it. It is no longer ‘essence’ in fact, just skin. Taking away the colour ‘deadens’ the flesh, especially if the background, as in this case, retains colour. And indeed the background here is fleshy coloured and has a warmth to it. However, I think the monochrome skin has a new quality. There is an uncanniness about it. It is perhaps slightly abject, because of the sense of death it brings to mind.

You can tell I am left-handed

I have also continued to paint items of food devoid of colour.

Does this make your mouth water?

As well as painting on the linen surface, which I love, I have been looking at the effect of painting with a white, smooth background. Painting ‘colourful’ objects on a white background changes the effect, different from on the linen. It pushes the object much further out and creates a sense of the object being suspended in space.

Ikea bag at rest

There’s something very odd about food without colour. Can the viewer identify this object without colour?

Oven chip with ketchup

The colour of chocolate is extremely important to its identity and effect on the viewer, so removing the colour actually changes the object’s identity entirely. These could be any sort of curved disks. 

Chocolate buttons

I’m not sure yet where this is leading me, but I am thoroughly enjoying returning to the ‘basics’ of painting. I haven’t painted much since I started the Foundation Degree five years ago. But then my art has always been about the concept coming first, and in this case the concept leads me to paint.

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The legacy of the avant-garde – the essay I didn’t need to write

Is a 21st-century avant-garde possible?

The Book on which this essay is based


“It is we, artists, that will serve as your avant-garde.” (Rodrigues Olinde, 1825, ‘L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel ‘, quoted in Matei Calinescu Five Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism)

In this essay I will consider the traditional and contemporary definitions of the term ‘avant-garde’ and relate them to the possibility of an avant-garde in the 21st century. I will conduct my argument based on the conclusions of John Berger, as expressed in his book Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he stated that any repetition of the original avant-garde is impossible and it would be a fallacy to hope for such an event. He firmly believed that the ‘historic’ avant-garde was a unique occurrence, and one which failed.

What is avant-garde?

This is not a radical question. Artists, business people, politicians, sociologists, historians, art critics and philosophers have been asking this question and pondering the answer for nearly two hundred years. However, despite the simplicity of the question, it is a difficult one to answer with precision.

It is well documented that sociologist Comte Henri de Saint-Simon was the first to conceive of the artist as a visionary. His hope was that the artist could work hand-in-hand with the scientist and the industrialist, to inspire humanity to imagine a better world (Margolin, 1997, p. 1). Rodrigues Olinde, a disciple of Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, argues Matei Calinescu, was in fact the real founding father of the concept of the avant-garde as he was the first to talk more conclusively of the role of art in uniting people with a new future (Calinescu, 1997, p.103). In a world that is fragmented and segmented, he believed that an imagined future was vital.

The term today is used to refer to any unorthodox and radical undercurrent of creative activity. I argue that a true avant-garde is generated from within itself, it cannot simply rely on external forces. It looks inwards and absorbs itself and causes a vertiginous feeling in anyone who tries to analyse it. It is the highest possible expression of revolutionary consciousness. For each major epoch since, during a period when culture, society and politics has been in crisis, an avant-garde of sorts has emerged, each one different from the previous.

In addition, the avant-garde is a kind of infantilism. The poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara wrote in 1936 that Dada, ‘was born of a revolt that was shared by all adolescents’ (quoted by Alex Melamid, 2017).  

A stronger definition of the avant-garde comes from Guy Debord. To him, the avant-garde is an overcoming of the current societal totality and development of an alternative organisation of reality. As he states: ‘The first realization of an avant-garde today would be the avant-garde itself.’ (Guy Debord in a letter dated March 15 1963 to Robert Estivals).

Given the legacy of the original avant-garde, I argue that part of what makes something avant-garde is in its inward-facing outlook, the ability to self-criticise, self-question and ask: what are we, are we avant-garde? The historical avant-garde self-created, rejecting all traditional media and methods and subjects. It turned the question ‘what is art’ on its head. I believe that this can be replicated as this question has not yet been resolved and the nature of the question changes with time.

Any sort of avant-garde is about challenging power and renewal, recycle, change, crisis, repetition, time and resistance through a seemingly infantile, rebellious means. A key word is repetition, in terms of originality borne out of the difference in repetition.

What is the legacy of the historic avant-garde?

Fundamentally, the historic avant-garde questioned authority and aimed to do this from within life. According to Peter Burger, an avant-garde is only possible when ‘art and the praxis of life are one’ (Burger, p. 51). Burger claimed that the original achievements of the avant-garde were unique, and that they could not be replicated and were therefore doomed to failure. The historic avant-garde sought to sublimate art with life, in the Hegelian sense, and according to Peter Burger’s theory it failed: ‘…the sublimation of art that the avant-gardists intended, its return to the praxis of life, did not in fact occur’ (Burger, p. 58).

The avant-garde was unable to achieve what it set out to achieve, according to Burger, for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, it was unique and therefore in the future it is impossible to replicate something unique. Secondly, because the definition and scope of the category ‘work’ expanded at the same time as the avant-garde flourished. The objet trouvé which was a chance discovery, a way of uniting art with the praxis of life, according to Burger, became to be recognised as the work of art. The objet trouvé, he argues further, stopped being anti-art but became an autonomous work with everything else that previously existed. In this way, then, he argued, the avant-garde as it was originally conceived, was inevitably historical and could never be replicated. The effect of the ‘historical’ avant-garde quickly diffused and the shock value was lost.

Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to the avant-garde was to question the notion of originality. He was, arguably, the first to put forward with one piece of art the following questions: what is art? What is not art? Is there a value in a copy? He facilitated artists to ask: how does that value compare to the value viewed as inherent in the original? He also questioned the notion that art necessitated time, effort and skill. His contribution to the avant-garde was to fire a revolution in art, which coincided with a global revolution in politics.

The historical avant-garde, or, the original avant-garde, by its happening, has allowed artists since to question art without controversy. It has become a fundamental principle of nearly all art now to question and self-criticise. The struggle for artists today is that they are preceded by a great number of significant movements. But it is a common misconception that the questions based on what art is have either been resolved, or left as unanswerable. It is easy to apportion blame on the historical avant-garde for this. The historic avant-garde has provided artists with a multitude of ways to approach art, including readymade, assemblage, performance, happening, documentation, image and installation. However, the greater legacy of the avant-garde is philosophical, and that is to question.

Conditions necessary for a new avant-garde art

‘The dreaming collective knows no history.’ Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 1999, p. 546).

It has since been argued by many, irrespective of the ‘uniqueness’ of the historical avant-garde, that merging art with life can never be fully realised, as indeed it wasn’t at the first attempt. This idea that the historical avant-garde was doomed to fail has become very influential since Peter Burger theorised about it. The basis of that argument, one followed by Frederik Jameson (1992) and Perry Anderson (1984) is that the socio-economic-political conditions for the success of an avant-garde are no longer with us. I question: is that true?

If we argue that the conditions for an avant-garde include political and / or economic turbulence, then the events of last few years exhibit critical tendencies, for example, the collapse of banks and financial markets, depletion of economies, ecological disasters, wars and the occupation and movement of people. It could be argued that we are at a turning point, a time of interruption. The current social and political conditions are different, perhaps even opposite, to those that spurned the historic avant-garde. Ironically, there is a strange similarity, in that private interests of capital have managed to permeate the whole of society again. So why shouldn’t another similar revolutionary avant-garde idea come now, during a time of global political revolution?

Frederic Jameson and Perry Anderson both see the avant-garde in purely historical terms. They have both questioned why we cannot have a genuine avant-garde today. The original avant-garde came about when the tension between capitalism and older forms caused a rift. But today, they both argue, the world is saturated by capitalist conditions. The socio-economic conditions which brought about the historical avant-garde cannot be replicated. However, I would argue that there is scope for a repetition of sorts.

If we argue that the industrial process has, as Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg have claimed, diluted the arts, can it now be debated that this same industrial process has actually created possibilities for cultural production to fight against the current path of progress of liberal capitalism? Can that reaction touch the lives of more people, in other words, blend art with life? The question to ask now is: what might be possible if community democratic participation in the cultural and aesthetic realm became a reality. Perhaps what is needed is to turn the cultural life of current capital upside down giving ordinary people the ability to control it, or, in other words, become artists of everyday life. The notion of class needs to be deconstructed again at the same time as tensions in the discrepancies in wealth in society should propel the direction of history. Intellectuals, philosophers, critics and artists are re-examining the role of labour in the creative economy. Artists, collectively at least, are starting to reassess again the relationship of art to work.

Instead of eradicating work, the current stage of commodification, argues Mackenzie Wark, has eradicated leisure (Wark, 2017). All of our movements and activities, he further argues, are part of a huge rhizomic network of data gathering and algorithm generation. He supposes that the next stage after Guy Debord’s predicted integrated spectacle might be what he calls a spectacle of disintegration. This describes a world where nobody, of any class, knows themselves (or looks inward on themselves). In other words, everything has become completely fragmented.

The role of time and history

Is being ahead of one’s time ever possible? What are the cultural conditions necessary for a new avant-garde? Moe Angelos argues that current artistic practices, such as the production of things and ideas, that may describe themselves as so-called avant-garde are ‘garde’ but not ‘avant’ (Angelos in Leger, p. 86). By which she means that we can see what the garde is but not what is ahead of it. The future is elusive, we only have the present. ‘The avant garde is not dead, yet at the same time it is dying,‘ (ibid., p. 87). In her argument, what occurs can, and does, die at every point in time in which we live. However, in the future, the ‘avant’, is always available and we can always see it. The ‘avant’ is the potential. In reality, we can only ever experience the future as the present, as we cannot actually imagine a future that isn’t in the present. This is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s notion of ‘the continuous present’, in which our knowledge of the world and our experience of the world can only exist in the present and not the future (Stein, 1926). The present is deeply compelling. But, we have developed many ways to escape the discomfort of the present. Our desire to live in the moment still drives us. However, I would argue that this has always been the case and this isn’t something unique to art and thinking about art now. What is something is able to liberate us from the supposed eternal return of history?

Rosalind Krauss argues that the idea of practicing ‘vanguard’ art (what avant-garde art is) aims to show originality as a basic assumption and one that emerges from the premise of repetition and recurrence (Krauss, p. 151). This may come across as a criticism of the originality of avant-garde art but in fact it can be viewed as an acceptance of the validity of an avant-garde as a force of originality (the difference in repetition).

One of the foundational principles of an avant-garde is finding connection between artistic experiment and political commitment. The question now is: is this now possible? Artistic avant-garde and the political vanguard have been scooped up by capitalism, and this in turn has integrated culture with capital, argues Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

Burger warns in Theory of the Avant-Garde against trying to reinstate the avant-garde and his caution is backed up with much intellectual rigour. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try for a new avant-garde, one that is relevant to history being created now. Gregory Sholette concludes that to realise a ‘history from below’ as he calls it, means generating a platform which is apart from the market (Sholette, p. 188). Alain Badiou argues that what takes the most courage is to ‘operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world’ (Badiou, p. 41). There are pockets of resistance, but they are as of yet fragmented and not unified enough.

Contemporary conceptual art is not truly avant-garde. It is about experimentation but it is not trying to create the world or culture anew. It tries to effect change, but that change is not radical or original.

Art now: Can we move from the continuous present to the ‘future’?

‘To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.’ Joseph Beuys

Is originality still possible, given that originality is derived from random generation of existing ideas and concepts?

Gregory Sholette in his book Dark Matter makes much use of the analogy which titled his book to question whether an avant-garde art can exist today. ‘Dark matter’, or missing mass, describes for him a mass of artistic activity produced in the current post-industrial society. He supposes that all genres play a role in the modern art economy. What once was a missing mass of creative activity has more recently undergone changes, cycles and mutations. His ‘dark matter’ includes artists who chose to work on the margin of the mainstream art world as a form of social, cultural, economic or political critique. These artists embrace inadequacies and barriers to the art institution, choosing to live in the dark matter. Instead, they use their relative invisibility and marginalization to their benefit and they feel able to challenge the norms of the art institution.

However, he further argues, these artists aren’t yet a strong enough political force. They appear to be effective locally and on the outer reaches, or in the short term, but so far, their activity, he explains has had just a small impact. The issues are to do with matters of scale. The ‘dark matter’ needs to be more united and a greater cultural mass. There is potential, perhaps there needs to be a greater global economic and cultural epistemological crisis (the economic and political conditions) to allow the dark matter to become truly avant-garde.

The post-internet art world has an important connection to the legacy of Dada and Duchamp, in terms of finding new ways of shifting art from pictorial representation. ‘Random’ has once again become a means of expression, as it was for Dada. Much internet and post-internet art relies on seemingly random acts of content generation, in the form of algorithms.

The message of a contemporary avant-garde should be that there is no message. The recipient of the avant-garde art may expect a message or a narrative. He or she will try to seek a meaning. He or she will feel unease at the lack of meaning and realisation that there isn’t a message. The message becomes that there isn’t a message.

One significant artistic body which could be described as avant-garde today is Metahaven, which is a design studio and art collective based in Amsterdam. Metahaven comprises of artists Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk and Gon Zifroni. Interviewed by Eye Magazine, Daniel van der Velden stated: ‘If you hammer too much it becomes too much like noise, and if it becomes too poetic you lose the tension of the density of ideas.’ (van der Velden, Eye Magazine online, 2009). It would be easy to dismiss the art practice of Metahaven as chaotic experimentations which are far removed from the realities of art practice. However, Metahaven as a group produce artworks that are theoretically and intellectually researched and strategically played. They show a level of intellectual sophistication and conviction that gives them credibility. They may not seem coherent, but in actual fact they are. Another similar artistic avant-garde body is Chto Delat, which translates as: What is to be done? This group was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a number of artists, thinkers, philosophers and writers. The goal of this group is to merge artistic practice with political theory and activism. The group also runs an art school called the School of Engaged Art. This group can be argued to be avant-garde in many ways including the way it produces art, the media it uses, the way it operates beyond the art institution and its philosophy of existing within life in a contemporary way. These are just two examples of what I argue to be current, or potential, avant-garde art practices today. There is also Gregory Sholette’s ‘dark matter’ of art practice, which constitutes too many examples of creative output, much of which aren’t documented, to mention. If this ‘dark matter’ can grow in strength and form a more cohesive whole, a strong, new avant-garde could emerge.

The issue currently is that these pockets of avant-garde-like activity need to build momentum and unite.


‘The artistic experimentalism and anti-bourgeois attitude of the vanguard successfully turns the raw directness of popular genres into searing political irony and satire, but only because the popular in these cases acquires a political function with respect to the avant-garde, forcing it to maintain a self-conscious honesty about mass destruction and oppression. The popular here is essential to preventing the avant-garde from folding in on itself and hiding its face from those who most need to receive its message. The “popular avant-garde” avoids the divorce of art and praxis, or everyday practice, of which the avant-garde has been accused.’ Renée Silverman (Silverman, 2010, p.11)

Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ was a watershed in the way we view art, but will artists using social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have the same impact for the 21st century that Dada did in the 20th century?

The continued supremacy of capitalism has been made complete as a result of the dominance of images in liberal capital culture. A new avant-garde needs to reject these images in their entirety. Perhaps nobody has quite achieved this yet. Change has been affected gradually by contemporary art practices which would like to describe themselves as avant-garde, the commodities of image replace and reinvent themselves in an endless repetitious cycle that is spiralling in the wrong direction, or perhaps parallel to the direction they should be going in. Capitalism has survived so well as it has been able to morph itself gradually to fit changes in the every day. The capitalist economy is a world of images, slogans, logos. This means that we do not perhaps yet see a true avant-garde, as argued by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

Mackenzie Wark argued that once the situationalists have been fully absorbed into the spectacle, the way will be clear for a new avant-garde. Has that happened? Avant-garde artists today need to live in the near future, not the present. If they can do that, they earn the title ‘avant-garde’. These artists have to deal with diffusion, decentralization and similar dispersing forces that are pushing them to look progressively to less traditional ways of expressing creativity.

Why should the avant-garde be restricted to an historical definition? Repetition is innate in the way we create. History is full of repetition, albeit with that vital slight difference each time a repetition occurs. Therefore, a new avant-garde is possible, and it can’t possibly be the same, but it is just as valid, or more so, than the original ‘historical’ avant-garde.

Each ‘repetition’ of avant-garde should be viewed as an individual act of rebellion and not compared directly with what precedes it, unless it is examined in terms of difference. Perhaps the only way to stop art being co-opted into the art institution is to not present it as art and not allow it be adopted by the market. The ‘dark matter’ of the art world needs to create an art that puts common and radical, democratic reinvention at its core.

Avant-garde artists have always used whatever the current ‘media’ is as their medium. However, perhaps it is in a future of invisibility that the ‘avant-garde’ lies. Maybe contemporary artists need to refuse any visibility, or exist purely in code.

A barrier to artists today who regard themselves as avant-garde in their practice is the prevalence of online critics. The consequence is that art shown online quickly becomes categorised and once it has been categorised or even touched by criticism, it becomes less avant-garde. One way to bypass this is for artists to curate their own work or act in a group or movement so that they can work with the modern media and concepts in a new and interesting way.

For as long as we have difference in repetition, societal, economic and cultural change, distress in the system and revolution of history we will always have the potential for a new avant-garde. It isn’t here yet, but might be soon.


Anderson, P. 1984. Modernity and Revolution. New Left Review I/144. March–April

Angelos, M. ‘The Avant Garde is Present’ in M. J. Léger. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Badiou, A. 2010. The Communist Hypothesis. London: Verso

Benjamin, W. 1999 The Arcade Project. Translated by Kevin McLaughlin. Eds Rolf Tidermann and Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Billet, A. 2017. A 21st-Century Popular Avant Garde. In Red Wedge [online]. 3 March. [Accessed 4 November 2017]. Available at: [last accessed 8 January 2018]

Calinescu, M. 1987. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke University Press

Jameson, F. 1992. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso Books

Krauss, R. 1986. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Léger, M. J. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Léger, M. J. 2012. Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics. London: Zero Books

Margolin, V. 1997. The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy 1917–1946. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Poynor, R. 2009. ‘Borderline’. Eye Magazine Online. Available at: [last accessed 8 January 2018]

Rasmussen, M. B. ‘The Self Destruction of the Avant Garde’ in M. J. Léger. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Sholette, G. 2006. Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. London: Pluto Press

Silverman, R. ed. 2010. The Popular Avant-Garde. Amsterdam: Ropodi.

Wark, M. ’60 Years of Recuperation: Are the Situationists still Relevant?’  Art Review. October 2017,  pp. 74-79



Question for Facebook: What does ‘avant-garde’ mean to you?

  • The 1920s
  • A font used in the 1920s
  • Art that is eccentric, or art that most would be cautious to display
  • Unorthodox
  • Art deco
  • Pretentious
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • We are all avant garde: freedom, free and fun
  • Stravinsky for music and Duchamp for art
  • Art that breaks the rules or is very strange, it is usually arty, stylish and brave
  • Jazz
  • New and quirky
  • Unusual, possibly exotic or risqué
  • Art in any medium that takes the current technology and techniques and pushes them in new, interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Before then being quickly consumed by advertising and marketing, only for the process to have to repeat onwards.
  • Punk rock is avant garde
  • To see, feel and hear things differently, a different angle of what others don’t see
  • Half a cow


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