Location| Poznan, Poland: Thinking About the Future of Avant-Garde Studies

Poznan public graffiti art I photographed near the conference site
My time in Poland the past several days was spent attending an academic conference organized by the European Network for Avant-garde and Modernism Studies, hosted at Adam Mickiewicz University. The purpose of the gathering was to explore the question of “high” and “low” culture through an examination of the influence of popular and consumer culture on the output of avant-garde art producers. Glancing at the programme, the range and diversity of topics reveals how much this area of study has changed over the years, moving beyond the expected topics related to the predominantly and historical Western European movements (such as German Expressionism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Dada) and opening up new avenues of discussion around an expanded and increasingly global approach to defining and locating the avant-garde in “other” times and places. The session I participated in, “High, Low or Middle Brow? Photography in and against Modernism and the Avant-garde” formed part of this alternative approach and was organized by Elena Gualiteri from the University of Sussex. I am happy to report that my paper “The Limits of Utopia: Exploring Intersections of the Photographic and Cinematic in the Disconnected Network of the Budapest Avant-Garde” was able to contribute to the excellent panel discussion and I met some wonderful new scholars that I look forward to corresponding with as a result.

But apart from meeting the fabulous group that made up my panel (and enjoying a lovely el fresco dinner with them in the Old Town square the final night of my stay--thanks to Aleksandra for the excellent Polish restaurant selection!), the highlight of the conference for me was finally getting to see Peter Bürger, the man who quite literally wrote the book on avant-garde theory (yes, academics also have “stars”). He formed part of a distinguished group participating in a round table discussion examining the future of avant-garde studies. For those of you attending FPA 111 last week, you might recall that my first lecture of the year introduced a definition for the term “avant-garde,” emphasizing the importance of the artistic movement as a deliberate provocation or “shaking up” of the mainstream culture, highlighting the importance of reintegrating some notion of everyday life and all of its attendant material concerns to the production of art.

The final outcome of this panel was quite revealing since almost everyone agreed that the current state of world affairs—with an increasingly difficult to apprehend global economic structure and fraught political landscape—was demanding that scholars pay even more attention to the participatory model and the close connection between art and political activism modeled by the historical avant-garde. More specifically, the spaces of the World Wide Web and the potential for social networking were cited as dynamic sites for deploying these strategies today and in the future (witness the grassroots Obama phenomenon as one recent example of how these systems can be used in the service of public action). I just wish we had more practicing artists on hand to develop and respond to this idea. Jet lag aside (as I write this entry, I am sitting in Frankfurt airport bracing myself for the long journey home) I did leave Poland hopeful that what we talked about in theory could be put into some kind of meaningful practice.