Reflections on the Avant-Garde in Pop Culture: Æon Flux´s “Tide” & Duchamp´s Fountain

by the editorial committee

A Preface to Both Pieces Under Discussion

These days, to call a work “avant-garde” is to already evoke an image of something already understood. When I am told by a friend or a critic that some piece of art is “avant-garde,” my mind immediately begins thinking of some sad performance art with the lead “figure” dressed in clown makeup screaming “bubblegum, war, Bush!!!” at the audience for seven hours, all the while covered in pig’s blood.  “It says everything you need to know about America man!” This is obviously an aggressive characterization, but one that aims at a certain reality of the situation regarding the avant-garde – namely that we can easily predict what we will see before we even make the effort of looking at it.

Gone seems the desire to seriously try and capture the feeling of being new, or breaking away from the preconceptions of what art might be. This perhaps is why we have phrased the question in this issue “What does it mean to be avant-garde today?” Thinking about the matter, avant-garde art now seems to be more of a genre than a goal. By that I mean to say that the avant-garde can be judged by exhibiting certain known components. Provocation seems to be the most common element of the avant-garde, but how provocative can a work be if we have become so familiar with the game that we can so easily ignore it?  -Steven A. Michalkow

The avant-garde is ahead of what now? As I tend to strike the note of historical pessimism on artistic notions and movements, I’ll remind us that the conflation of a social and political mission that was manifested in avant-garde developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. When most people think of avant-garde art now, they think of either the conceptual or the post-modern. The elements of avant-garde thinking, both left and right, was that art was predicated on and developed from social change and innovation.

The link between social change and innovation seems weaker after the development of many of the conceptual modes of art that link themselves to the avant-garde in terms of strangeness or formal technique.  It is important to remember that the avant-garde, however, with its politically styled manifestos and ties to various political organizations, was about social as well as aesthetic provocation. What does one make of that today? I do not know. If the avant-garde is reduced to an academic genre in the common usage, can it be said to even be related to the aesthetic-social movements that inspired it in the early 20th century?  – C. Derick Varn

Æon Flux

Aeon Flux – Tide. 06  on Vimeo.

Setting aside my longstanding love of the show, and the obvious biases that might entail, the question has been raised: can we think of the Æon Flux short “Tide” as an avant-garde work of art? I have no reservations saying yes. The episode seductively denatures simplified perceptions of story-telling and even the perception of time. What’s particularly amazing about “Tide” is that it achieves this shift in perceiving the world precisely through its extreme formalism.

The plot is not particularly complicated. Æon, our protagonist, is descending an elevator making stops to every floor in a water-based facility looking for a door her key might open while simultaneously fighting an armed opponent, keeping an eye on a prisoner, and working with an ally who may or may not be on her side. All the while she is also preventing a device from being lowered into a component of facility. Æon’s mission fails, her opponent betrays her, she dies, and the narrative drowns in apocalypse. A simple story, yet deeply moving. That being said, the plot alone is not what makes the work so mind-altering, but rather the form in which Peter Chung chooses to illustrate this story.

Look closely at the images you are seeing. You will notice this roughly four minute long episode is really composed of twenty, two-second long shots repeated 6 times. Though our narrative is superficially linear (we even get a countdown as we descend from floor to floor), the presentation of that narrative is cyclical. The short thus postulates the notion that our perception of linear narrative is already complicated by repetition. We are constantly cycling through repeated motions even if we believe ourselves to be on teleological paths.

Take an even closer look. You will notice that several of the repeated shots have little to no content throughout much of the episode. I notice in particular the shot of the elevator floor as the doors open. Yes, the shot tells us that the door is opening to each new floor, but that is a small component of the image, and off the center of attention, which through much of the episode is an empty space.  Only near the end will we discover that is where Æon’s lifeless form will lie after she is betrayed and murdered by her ally. Again, the formalism of the episode helps foster deconstruction of time. Though we won’t be sure until the end of the episode, the presence of that empty shot communicates the death of our heroine in advance. The foreshadowing present in the preceding emptiness of the shot serves not only to punctuate the ending of the narrative, but also to reinforce the theme of futility which encircled all of the Æon Flux shorts prior to the full length series.

It is not the narrative which develops these explorations of time, repetition, and the relationship between the linear and the non-linear progression of events, but rather the formal structure and composition of images. In a way, we can think of this story as structured more like a piece of music than any kind of traditional narrative. It is highly formal, with an extremely developed architectural structure, but it is not formulaic. I cannot recognize this kind artistic exploration in advance of watching it as easily I can other works which claim the moniker of avant-garde. Combine this with the sexuality of the animation, its rich attention to visual detail, and it’s commitment to a pure cinematic aesthetic, and I think you can see why I find this groundbreaking work. Over twenty years old, and the piece still has room for continual exploration.

In reviewing the episode again in preparation for our current issue, I couldn’t help but see the plug behind door 2 as a metaphor for the topic at hand. A truly vital work of avant-garde art might just be found in knowing how to use a piece of formal structure to your advantage. At first sight, it may well appear like a banal bit of equipment, but it might just be the thing we need to keep the whole notion of the avant-garde afloat. –Steven A. Michalkow

Watching Æon Flux’s short, “Tide,” hits one with a dual bit of nostalgia: one for a time in which there could be such an idea as the popular “avant-garde,” and a time in which there was still hand-drawn animation. In my early teens, Æon Flux intrigued me and now that MTV’s marketing and a terrible movie has tried to soil the memory of the program, I still find the dialogue-free shorts to be particularly illuminating. Peter Chung’s style as well as the bizarre way in which technology and sexuality are incorporated to make what seems like metaphysical points make the former crown seat of teen culture’s relationship with animation here highly interesting. What is particular to the early 1990s where this could have happened? Why, despite two decades of programming like Adult Swim, has such high concept animation been somewhat lacking? The question seems to be as much about a zeitgeist as not. It is not that Aeon Flux was the first avant-garde animation nor was it nearly the first piece to push sexuality in animation, as Ralph Bakshi devoted most of his career to doing, it was the combination into a serious silent short.

What does this say about 90s and the avant-garde are hard to pin down? The cycles of Tide here focus on a absurdist situation which lingers beyond the sinking of sea-base. So much ado to end in failure, and to do so in ways that apply to endless of failure. In a way, it is that frustration as well as it aesthetic promise that makes Æon Flux interesting, but also indicates that avant-garde as a form of popular culture was doomed. As Æon Flux became successful, the narratives imposed on in the form of the later movie particularly proved too much for the franchise to bare. The contradictions of a market imperative and a franchise whose aesthetic preoccupations not only complicated that but also critiqued in non-narrative ways led to the it being short lived.

Looking closer at the “Tide,” the repetition in the scenes seems to be significant, and yet reflects a certain drudgery. The cycles of time which repeat, but not exactly, as in spirals and not circles. Æon´s violence and sexuality seem to morph together at points even when she dies almost meaninglessly.

What is interesting is the distinctive strain of Gnosticism in the pieces, which was a through strain in 1990s culture as a whole as seen in the Matrix as well as the cosmic dualism often displayed in David Lynch films. It is tempting to read this an expression of the individual and a quasi-libertarian protest; however, I think this binary is wrong-headed. The vision of Æon Flux and her death illustrates the tension in creation against various competing interests which are constantly shifting. This is a properly avant-garde vision in that it is both an expression of the individual and a critique of it in Æon’s constant on-going death. The implication in the Gnostic imagery of Æon Flux is that she knows that in the flux she undoes and recreates herself and the world around her. Gnosis, after all, is about knowledge. – C. Derick Varn

Clearly the animated short “Tide” is a erotically charged and compelling work of art, but is it avant-garde art?

In interviews Chung has made it clear that his heroine Æon Flux is not seeking freedom, but rather that Flux (the heroine and the work) is already free. There is nobody giving Æon Flux orders. She is self-aware, self-motivated, self-created, but this freedom is one based on repetition inside a futuristic version of the old cold war game of spy vs. spy. Æon may be a free agent but she can only be defined as such because of the fortresses, platoons, secret bases, and conspiracies that are in the background.

The key to understanding this particular short is to examine Æon’s relationship with a literal key, or more specifically, her relationship with the plastic label that has come loose from a key for a storage closet within the ocean base.

Taking an elevator down, stopping on each floor of the base, Æon is looking for something. It turns out that she is looking for a rubber stopper, a spare, that is hidden away in one of the identical storage closets on each floor. In order to keep the world she is in afloat after the military pulls the plug she needs a duplicate. But as she moves along Æon becomes more interested in the process, in repeating her steps as she goes about her search, than she is in the goal. At around the one and half minute mark, right before she reaches the fourth floor, Aeon manages to get ahold of the key label, but rather than look at the number printed there she slides the label back into the small space between two industrial sinks. She chooses to keep the game going.

What this means, I think, is that Æon doesn’t aim at self-awareness, but instead is true to her immediate desires. And it is this faithfulness, both in the character and the total work, that makes Æon Flux both compelling and, at first glance, seemingly inscrutable.

Is Æon Flux avant-garde, only if we believe that the aim of today’s avant- garde is not to find a new form by breaking with the past, only if we believe that self-awareness should be replaced by a love of the immediate.

The avant garde trajectory of Æon Flux is predicated on faith. Faith in the individual, faith in the formal, and finally faith in the desire and satisfaction that can be found by following both toward self-destruction. -Douglas Lain

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain

567px-Duchamp_Fountaine

Duchamp’s Fountain is the type of art that begs to be intellectualized…to be discussed. Indeed, it seems almost exclusively to operate on the level of a dialogue or historical anthropology on the nature of what “art” means. And yet, speaking truthfully, I feel emotionally cold and aesthetically indifferent to the work itself.

Whenever I think about this “Fountain,” I invariably don’t really think much about the “Fountain” as such, but rather the philosophical and theoretical developments which give the piece its relevance. We can certainly go through the motions in this space available to us on this page. We can discuss the Dada movement, the history of the piece, the question of found art, the notion of authorship…but what more could we contribute? I can only repeat a discussion now over a century beyond its initial inception. The conversation, as far as I am concerned, is inert. So what is left of the work? In a way, this work of art doesn’t exist as such, outside of our ability to appreciate it within the context of language…and that comes to be a rather boring exercise over time.

Isolated from this intellectual context, the Fountain is not evocative of anything particularly stimulating to me. The best I can do is note the odd shape of the porcelain, and wonder what it might be like to have to relieve myself in such a shape. Perhaps this emptiness in the absence of context is precisely the point of Duchamp’s intent, but such limitations seem ridiculously artificial, or merely because Duchamp imposed such limitations rather than recognizing some objective fact of limitation.

So the question remains: is Duchamp’s Fountain avant-garde? I think perhaps it was, but that time has now passed. If Duchamp had managed to create a moment that opened up new possibilities of what art might be, it has long passed into the mundane.  Indeed, there are no shortages of replicas and variations on a non-theme. There are oh so many number of urinals, bath tubs, sharks in tanks, and other such throwaways ready to be wrapped up in a dead theoretical construct and sold to the highest bidder. This does raise the question of whether or not a work’s status as being of the avant-garde has something akin to a shelf life. Perhaps the avant-garde art of this sort can expire like old cheese at the end of a shelf in a dull dank grocery store. And if it has an expiration date, like a readily available easily replicated product, was it ever anything more than kitsch in the first place? -Steven A. Michalkow

The question we ought to ask when we confront Duchamp’s Fountain is:

“How is this different from a basketball?”

Not just any basketball, mind you, but that basketball in a fish tank, the one that is part of MOMA’s permanent collection. These are the two readymades, the two examples of modern or avant garde art (terms which perhaps ought not to have been conflated but which unfortunately have been), that should be juxtaposed in our minds I think; not because both are outrageous and provocative, but because the works start from such different different conceptions of art.

The primary difference is that Duchamp’s Fountain was a product of a self-aware and critical vision. Duchamp’s was an intentional provocation. His overall aim as an artist was to create impersonal art, art that escaped the provincial terrain of good or bad taste, and this particular piece aimed to overturn the thinking and institutional hypocrisies that recognized and validated the metric of taste.

Duchamp set a contradiction before us. In later interviews he explained that his readymade was art that shouldn’t be art, art that wasn’t meant to be looked at, art that worked as art precisely because it was a contradiction.

Jeff Koon’s basketball, however, was a work of art that shouldn’t be art created in the name of taste. In his artist statement for MOMA he claimed that with the basketballs in a fish tank constituted a work that was very, very pure.

“You know, the reason that I used a basketball over another object is really probably for the purity of it, that it’s an inflatable, it relates to our human experience of to be alive we have to breathe. If the ball would be deflated, it would be a symbol of death. But it’s inflated, so it’s a symbol of life,” he wrote.

This is art with all the contradictions ironed out. And while there are bits of obvious theatricality in his artist’s statement–the conversational tone and the banality of his metaphor both appeared to be deliberately false–what Koons was hiding with this artifice was the truth of his own claim.

“You know, one of the interesting things about the ready-made in art—whether it’s a building or whether it’s an aquarium or a basketball, is that the ready-mades are really a form of acceptance of the world,” Koons wrote.

Looking at the urinal and at the basketballs at the same time it’s easy to discern just how the ready-made was recuperated. Today the concept is exhausted, dulled, and no longer useful as a weapon in a struggle for emancipation from bourgeois taste. Still, the question of whether a new concept, a new starting point, might be acted upon is still an open one. – Douglas Lain

So much ado about a toilet submitted to an art show. In an art history class I took in my undergraduate days, we devoted two weeks to Duchamp’s stunt and its implications. We also discussed the strange role that Dada played both in terms of an avant-garde movement and precursor to both the flippancy and the experimentation of post-modernism. It was post-modernism, in ignoring the distinctions originally set out by Clement Greenberg, that collapsed the avant-garde and kitsch in a way that questioned taste. In the aftermath of which it is very hard to say if there is still a relevance to the notion of an avant-garde. In this way, Duchamp’s act of what we would call “trolling” would have blurred that line between avant-garde and Kitsch after a decade-and-a-half before Greenberg even wrote his essay.

The obvious question becomes “what is art?” That question is beyond a few hundred word reflection: some will say critical vision, others will say sublime. I waver between the two.  The critique of the first is that even the humble artisan or corporate designer has a critical vision, and the distinction from that is just Duchamp’s uselessness. Art is thus removed from any practical context. One cannot know if Duchamp is critiquing this or reveling in it. The sublime, however, is nebulous and can only be understood by its comparison to things which are seen as lacking it. The entire enterprise can thus become circular. I think the fact we discuss Fountain as a pivotal if not the pivotal moment of 20th century art is a larger question: the shift from to the conceptual did not begin with Dada nor has it gone away, but the lingering effects of a toilet to question key conventions of art seems, now, almost as stale as the art world which Duchamp intended to question in the first place. If anything the fact we cannot answer the question indicates that our categories here are either under-cooked or over-thought. If the latter, then a certain critique of conceptual plastic arts is developed instantly from that assertion. If the former, there is still more work to be done despite all the talk of the end of art. – C. Derick Varn

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