Published 25.09.2014

The Avant-garde and the Ultra-local: Tectonics, Systems and Sheep (2014)

Lars Bang Larsen

New commissioned essay for the Systemics #4: Aarhus Rapport - Avantgarde as  network (or, the politics of the ultralocal), by Lars Bang Larsen, co-curator of the exhibition.


In this essay I want to critically address a question that is frequently asked—explicitly and implicitly, and from various quarters—namely, ‘Where is the avant-garde today?’ Even if one works from the assumption that the history of avant-garde art is crucial to contemporary efforts towards the making and the thinking of art, this question can’t be satisfied in any direct way. Instead I want to take issue with the expectation to locate a contemporary artistic avant-garde, or the avant-garde.

This expectation is stimulated by the mass media that circulate caricatures of a vanguard attitude in the form of a—typically masculine—radical subjectivity. You will already be familiar with the examples of more or less obscure artists whose works are rarely institutionally legitimised, but are instead accompanied to a fleeting fame by popular media. This interest in the individual artistic provocation hypocritically banks on a non-existing mainstream interest in art, exhausting the art concept in the process.

Academics who intend to identify a contemporary avant-garde often trace the alleged presence of radical formal experiments in today’s artistic practice (probably for this reason Nicolas Bourriaud’s text on relational aesthetics surprisingly still finds its way to university curricula). On the other hand, an idealist nostalgia for the avant-garde’s Hegelian-dialectic origins also lingers (as expounded with literary allure in Peter Bürger’s Theorie der Avant-Garde from 1974). To claim that the avant-garde today is dead and gone is simply the other side of the same idealist coin, a claim that often evokes an activist anti-art as the avant-garde’s contemporary placeholder. However it can be argued that the political charge of an activist art is considered through sublimated aesthetic modalities such as assumptions about the sublime moment of the revolution, the unconditional creativity of the street, etc. Such an aesthetically augmented political potential will always exceed—in ways that are spectacular, unbounded, risky, etc.—the institutional form of art as well as the existing forms of the political. It simply looks and sounds better than our elected politicians, and it insists on an art predicated on a simple and unmediated reality.

Art institutions, too, may take part in creating expectations of a contemporary avant-garde. Here powerful vanguard concepts are often mobilized in the waning or absence of bourgeois culture’s historical ideal of Bildung that encouraged citizens to educate themselves via an active interest in art. In press releases, concepts derived from the striking and radical narratives of a modernist avant-garde are seen to embody art’s transgressive, subversive, innovative, playful spirit - that, again, typically is domesticated in the individual author as a representative of creativity or genius. To be sure, art institutions don’t only hedge their bets on an avant-garde heritage; the latter is only one tool among others on a palette of instrumentality that may include other historical templates (such as rococo sensibilities of the good life, art as an edifying moral tool, the radical entrepreneurialism of the Pop artist, and so on).

Three things are directly or indirectly presupposed in the question ‘Where is the avant-garde today?’ Firstly, that the avant-garde exists in a locatable way. Secondly, that somebody has a claim to it or can stake ownership. And thirdly, that it can be perceived in the here and now, in synchronicity with all other of today’s events and pseudo-events. In the following I hope to challenge all three assumptions, in order to show that this question in a certain sense cancels itself out. Put simply, my reply to the question would be: Nobody has the avant-garde, it is nowhere in particular to be found, and it is always late.


1. Exquisite corpse: Aarhus Rapport

The route toward the avant-garde that my reading will take is (necessarily, you might say) a circuitous one. The case in point for this discussion is the exhibition Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as Network (or, the politics of the ultra-local) (2014).[i] The exhibition focuses on, and departs from, the publication Århus Rapport 1961-1969 (1969), a book that catalogued experimental art activity in and around the city of Aarhus at that time. Edited by the poet Kristen Bjørnkjær and the artists Mogens Gissel and William Louis Sørensen, it includes skeletal documentation of exhibitions, art and music performances, happenings and mixed media activity that took place in a mixture of institutional and non-institutional settings; usually institutes of higher learning such as teacher’s seminars, the students’ union at the university, the school of architecture, the conservatory, commercial galleries and non-profit spaces, and the pre-historical museum (mainly anywhere, in fact, than the Århus Art Museum that is only represented by one exhibition in the book.)

By taking the Rapport as its object, the 2014 exhibition relates to historical events that are already read and mediated by its editors Bjørnkjær, Gissel and Sørensen. It is significant that we are already twice removed from the historical avant-gardes, via the initial Rapport that allows us indirect access to neo-avant-garde art of the 1960s, as an art created by artists whose practices in various ways were informed by the historical avant-gardes of the 20th century.

The ‘curatorial collective’ proceeded through group discussions and workshops, and later by pursuing relatively independent curatorial and artistic interests. In an attempt at inscribing local art history in various thematic and artistic arcs we combined different generations of contemporary part, and art historical research with a heuristic aspect that employed the Rapport to reflect contemporary critical concerns.[ii] A number of commissions were given to artists and curators with the brief of somehow responding to the histories and methodologies represented by the Rapport; turning the exhibition into something more open-ended than an archival endeavour.

This, hopefully, has been one way of doing justice to the Rapport and the history it represents. A more conventional curatorial approach would have properly engaged in a philological reconstruction of historical events and influences as reflected in the Rapport. The fact that an exhaustive, historical mining of this rich publication hasn’t been done so far is perhaps symptomatic of the fact that Denmark doesn’t have a museum of modern art that has functioned as such with respect to national and international avant-garde and neo-avant-garde history. At this point, the interests of the larger Danish museums generally seem to be elsewhere (in spite of the way they, as I claim, may be implicated in creating expectations to a contemporary avant-gardism).   

Through the exhibition title’s juxtaposition of concepts of the avant-garde, networks and the more obscure term the ultra-local, in the following sections I will try to trace historical continuities as well as speculative tensions between the new, artistic positions in this exhibition and the 1960s vanguard material that makes for the exhibition’s archival core. Specifically I would like to start probing if there is a way to productively dislodge the humanist assumptions inherent to avant-garde culture.


2. The obscure origins of the ultra-local

In mathematics and physics the ultralocal is a phenomenon influenced only by its immediate neighbours. A kind of remote and abstract province where no lines of flight are possible, and all movement is indirect and contingent on neighbours and neighbours’ neighbours.

Unsurprisingly, Salvador Dalí’s interpretation of the concept is less modest. In his acceptance speech for his induction into the French academy in 1979, he related an epiphany that he had had at the railway station in Perpignan. As he was waiting for the train one afternoon the very constitution of the universe revealed itself to him, and in a moment of “cosmogonic ecstasy” he saw that the Iberian Peninsula had turned around this exact point in time and space when the tectonics plates had shifted in the prehistoric era. Hadn’t it been for this geological link in Southern France, Spain would have drifted to Australia and the entire nation forced to live among the kangaroos—“the most dreadful thought conceivable.” On this note Dalí quotes “his old friend” Michel de Montaigne: On ne parvient à l'universel qu'à partir de l'ultralocal (or in the potent Spanish: Hay que ser ultralocal para ser universal).

This phrase circulates in various versions on the Net and in the literature on Dalí—but one will search in vain for the notion of the ultra-local in Montaigne’s writing. According to Jordi Bayod Brau, Catalan translator of Montaigne’s Essays, one will have to apply a ‘Dalínian’ interpretation to Montaigne to arrive at a statement that resembles the one for which Dalí quotes him.[iii] Since Dalí was a keen reader of new research in the exact sciences we can speculate that he had derived the concept of the ultra-local from its mathematical definition, and subsequently given it an aesthetic spin by ‘quoting’ it from Montaigne. This hardly compromises Dalí, though. Quoting his own methodology, outlined in the 1930 essay L’Âne pourri, you could say that by misquoting Montaigne he created a paranoiac version of the term ‘ultra-local’: A double, a simulacrum with which he deliberately created estrangement and confusion.

Of course Dalí’s paranoiac intervention in the concept doesn’t make it any less confusing as to what it actually means. However it is certain that one of the graces of the term is how it conveys a certain neutrality of value. If the term ‘provincial’ is pejorative, the ultra-local is indifferent to the dichotomy of centre and periphery.[iv] Borrowing the words of Bruno Latour, the ultra-local can be seen as “an Ariadne’s thread that would allow us to pass with continuity from the local to the global, from the human to the nonhuman. It is the thread of networks of practices and instruments, of documents and translations.”[v] You can say that the ultra-local has to do with what you make of a place, and less with its official ontologies. There are ultra-locales within the metropolis as well as in the wasteland; specifically constituted and singularly connected, multiple time-spaces that produce uniquely and resist translation and representation. The ultra-local is not what makes a locale unique or perceivable: it is both above and below the landscape or the cityscape, and something prior or posterior to the names and images with which we identify them. It calls for new cartographies and other types of navigation that are based on the realization that no centre holds and that no overview is possible.


3. It is great to be anywhere

One can appreciate the strangeness of the fact that in the 1960s, vanguard activity took place in Aarhus and nearby towns like Odder, Beder, and Silkeborg. Not that this is unique to Denmark; one can exchange these place names that happen to be in Jutland for others—Frankfurt, Coventry, Malmö, Bilbao, Rosario, and other, more parochial places in the Western world during the same period. But it is strange considering how contemporary art, since the publication of the Århus Rapport in 1969, increasingly has become a metropolitan phenomenon that gravitates towards what Saskia Sassen has termed ‘global control cities’, from where flows of money and information are moved around in our distributive modernity.

According to Tania Ørum, the most ultra-local aspect of the Århus Rapport is not so much the nature of its content - that, by dint of its mobile participants, is trans-local and international in character - but the fact that its editors focused on events taking place in and around Aarhus.[vi] Apart from this, the editorial attitude of the Rapport is decidedly low-key, un-gestural and non-creativist. Experimental as the individual artistic projects of Sørensen, Gissel and Bjørnkjær may have been, their editorial approach was rather as registrars or archivists.

Following this, the activities documented in the Århus Rapport belonged to Aarhus only in the sense that they passed through here. The anonymity of the editorial attitude confirms that in a certain sense the Rapport is indifferent to Aarhus: in fact the Aarhus map on the cover of the Rapport could be replaced with the map of any city through which experimental artists passed at that time. With this in mind, one can resist the idea that this exhibition is about the so-called Aarhus avant-garde; the notion that is sometimes applied to various manifestations of Aarhusian art and culture with a perceived cutting edge element. In fact William Louis Sørensen himself links the Rapport to the Aarhus music scene in the 1970s and 80s, and further ascribes the amnesia surrounding the Rapport to a rivalry between the Aarhus and Copenhagen art scenes.[vii] Sørensen’s perspective is not predicated on the ultra-local, but on a dichotomy between the old question of centre and periphery, capital and province. No doubt his view would have been different, had the Rapport been given the attention it deserved by the Copenhagen press; to this day the book hasn’t been reviewed. In this respect the Rapport met with a genuine avant-garde fate. Only a few people ever saw the events it documents, and their influence is belated, after-the-fact.

On the level of artistic projects in the Rapport, Jeanette and Peter Laugesen’s Det udendørs Galerie (‘The Outdoor Gallery’) is one of the telling cases for the interpenetration of the local and universal. In today’s institutional parlance The Outdoor Gallery was a roving, not-for-profit, self-organised space. A pop-up gallery with a non-architectural strategy, it took place in all any existing outdoor spaces, and thereby an exhibition could consist of an object being thrown out of the window of a bus for example. However the very premise of its existence was also the reason for its eventual discontinuation by the Laugesens, who realized that if their Gallery was an immaterial framework for all things out of doors, it also contained the Vietnam War, which they couldn’t possibly endorse. Connecting the ‘universal’ function of the art institution to any site whatsoever, the topographical contingency of The Outdoor Gallery literally renders the question irrelevant of where the avant-garde is to be found.


4. Ghosts and granularity

Unlike the ultra-local, the avant-garde is often constructed or narrated by and around human actors, human intentions and human politics: agitated and angry bodies, bodies that write manifestos, form social movements and meet in bars and salons, bodies that in the name of progress and innovation create what has never before been seen by human eyes. It has to be said that obviously, post- or nonhuman motifs have been propounded by the vanguard in many ways, from the surpassing of the human form to machinic and systemic imaginaries and the integration of new technologies into artistic practice. In terms of the reception of avant-garde culture, however, the story is often a different one; just consider the neo-humanism and focus on sociability and human communities with which the concept of the avant-garde was re-introduced in the 1990s, through for instance relational aesthetics. If historians are these years shifting “the temporal parameters away from the expectation of continuity which sustains the discipline of history” (in the words of Rosi Braidotti), with the result that the distinction between human and natural histories is being destroyed—then why not do the same to art history?[viii]

The ultra-local remains intractable and neutral, as an abstract—geological, speculative, systemic—vanishing point for human history. One can conceive of ultra-localities as nodes in a network, but these nodes are more than organizational and programmatic networks in human cultures. When historical space is considered to be a scale-free network inhabited by nonhuman actors, history’s battlefield splits into many, transversally connected vectors. If art is considered a manifestation within such a space, it stands to reason that it cannot be placed at the summit or forefront of history, but is rather a systemic phenomenon.[ix]

It is interesting to take note of the fact that the new commissions created for the exhibition converge on the concept of the nonhuman. The works of Lea Porsager, Dave Hullfish Bailey and Johannes Christoffersen, to single out these three artists, take their cue from the Aarhus Rapport to upset anthropocentric perspectives by introducing nonhuman actors such as sun rays and a flock of sheep as co-producers of the work (Porsager’s Soil Solarization (a.k.a. the Sønderholm Experiment)); by deconstructing a self-invented system of perception (Christoffersen’s The Aarhus Line: The Big Space Travel); and (as Bailey does it in Working Model) by mapping specific sites and geological strata in Colorado and their entanglement with countercultural and demographic histories. In Bailey’s own words, such an encyclopedic, anthropocenic unfolding of the granularity of a terrain brackets the local and universal by approaching networks “as finite and inertial systems of material circulation”. He continues, it “seems like a useful problem object relative to the more abstract/romantic image of free-flowing currents of ideas ricocheting between avant-gardists.”[x]

Porsager, Bailey and Christoffersen’s works are symptomatic of a different engagement with the avant-garde tradition. By working in continuation of spiritualist and occult traditions (in themselves related to nonhuman entities or materialisations), Porsager points out that we coexist with historical spectres of the avant-garde. Whereas Christoffersen draws on morphologies and imagery related to Russian constructivism that are re-invested in mythologies of 20th century space travel and the ancient Egyptian death cult. The artistic irregularities they produce are based on an embrace of the strangeness of our historical situation and a self-interrogation of the outstanding balances these artists have with an avant-garde heritage. It is out of their hands how history progresses (if it does); whatever destruction they wreak and negativity they spread they answer for by ceaseless reflection, new attempts and confessed meltdowns.

When given the chance, the history of the avant-garde can turn into a lazy patriarch who lords it over artistic production in the present. To avoid anachronistic import of a modernist trope, a careful historical reconstruction is always needed—along with the assistance of a-historical, nonhuman, pre-socialized, anonymous helpers that atomize and complicate the powerful and necessary historical grand narratives of the artistic avant-gardes. Perhaps the avant-garde is nothing but a promise; the promise that art can be something else than a social regularity, a hegemonically structured and ultimately normalising cultural function. To insist on this promise one can trace the effects that the avant-gardes have generated in our present historical space from far away.




[i] The exhibition Aarhus Rapport, that took place at Kunsthal Aarhus September 26 – December 31 2014 was fourth and last in the exhibition series Systemics. Artists included Eric Andersen, Antipyrine, Dave Hullfish Bailey, Glenn Christian, Johannes Christoffersen, Sture Johannesson, Kirsten Justesen, Jakob Jakobsen, Museum of Ordure, Poul Pedersen, Lea Porsager, C.F. Reuterswärd, William Louis Sørensen og Show-Bix & (Morten Søndergaard, Mogens Jacobsen, Martin Luckmann, Sebastian Frese Bülow), and others. See:

[ii] The curatorial collective consisted of Joasia Krysa, Geoff Cox, Morten Søndergaard, Jacob Lund, Marianne Ping Huang, Anne Kølbæk Iversen, Lea porsager and myself.

[iii] In an email to me from September 10, 2014, Brau proposes that these references from Montaigne’s Essais (1572-1592) that might have inspired Dalí to ascribe his concept of the ’ultra-local’ to the former:
"...j'estime tous les hommes mes compatriotes, et embrasse un Polonois comme un François, postposant cette lyaison nationale à l'universelle et commune. Je ne suis guere feru de la douceur d'un air naturel. ... Nature nous a mis au monde libres et desliez; nous nous emprisonnons en certains destroits" (ed. Villey-Saulnier, III, 9, 973; ed. Acantilado, p. 1450).
-"Distingo est le plus universel membre de ma Logique" (II, 1, 335; Acantilado, p. 485);
-"Leur plus universelle qualité [de les opinions], c'est la diversité" (II, 37, 786; Acant., p. 1176);
-"il n'est aucune qualité si universelle en cette image des choses que la diversité et varieté" (III, 13, ; Acant., p. 1589).
- Quand les vignes gelent en mon village, mon prebstre en argumente l'ire de Dieu sur la race humaine, et juge que la pepie en tienne des-jà les Cannibales. ... A qui il gresle sur la teste, tout l'hemisphere semble estre en tempeste et orage" (I, 26, 157; Acant., p. 201).

[iv] The art historian Hubert van den Berg has traced the networked topography of the historical avant-gardes to debunk prevailing vanguard metaphors (of militarism, linearity and so on) and instead approach the historical European avant-gardes through a rhizomatic historiography. However somewhat surprisingly, van den Berg continues to operate with the valorizing dichotomy of centre and periphery, of (capital) sites of origin-ality and (provincial) sites of derivative artistic agency (Hubert van den Berg: “Kortlægning af det nyes spor i det gamle: bidrag til en historisk topografi over det 20. århundredes avantgarde(r)”, in Ping Huang og Ørum (eds.): En tradition af opbrud: Avantgardernes tradition og politik. Forlaget Spring, Copenhagen 2005.)

[v] Bruno Latour: We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1993, p. 121.

[vi] Tania Ørum in her presentation at the Systemics #4 opening seminar, September 27 2014.

[vii] William Louis Sørensen: ”ONCE UPON a second IN THE FAR EAST, sorry WEST!” Unpublished text, 2000.

[viii] Rosa Braidotti: The Posthuman. Polity Press, London 2013, p. 83.

[ix] Apart from the Outdoors Gallery of the Laugesens, aspects of the non- or post-human appear in the Aarhus Rapport in the form of non-symbolic, process-oriented works that emphasise anonymity, seriality, and interaction with new media at the cost of an imperial (self-relying, Cartesian) subject. One can mention the systems poetic of feedback structures and autopoiesis in the work of Eric Andersen and Showbix; the proto-feminist stance in Kirsten Justesen and the proto-institutional critique of C.F. Reuterswärd; William Louis Sørensen’s meditations on pure intensities in his pneumatic installations; and the psycho-geographic performativity of George Brecht.

[x] Dave Bailey in email to Joasia Krysa and me, September 1 2014.