David Antin’s “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” (1981/1993), 2010 Scream festival edition

by Carl Wilson

I was having one of those swamp-thing weekends where you start crying in all the wrong places and to all the wrong people, and I needed a therapy. Not the sort to solve problems but the sort in which you invent an imaginative diversion machine to feed them into, to help you stop thinking explicitly about them, and hope that they return to you in some more intelligible form. Evolution might have invented dreaming for this purpose but there was no way I could sleep.

The first imaginative diversion machine consisted of sitting in a bar full of people watching Spain and Paraguay play soccer; then a gallery show (Michah Lexier’s playfully arid numbers-game group show A to B); then a movie and some wine at Margaux’s. These were effective but only till waking Sunday morning in much the same state as I had Saturday morning, so I had to invent something better.

That better thing turned out to be to sit, pace, stroll and stride around a park with MP3s of talk-pieces by David Antin on my headphones. I had downloaded them because in a couple of days I would be introducing Antin at an event in the Scream Literary Festival in Toronto and wanted to get in tune with his work, which I’d known only passingly.

They were, that is, an obligation. It’s been a while since I was reminded so intensely how when it comes to art what seemed like obligation can become the greatest pleasure. (I’m reminded of the reverse all too frequently.)

The talk I listened to was broadly about time and memory, the way that without memory there is no time – without a past, no future. And then the question of what information the past consists in. Walking around the park I was thinking about my own past and future, my eyes on other people having their summer weekend, my ears full of a recording of what was once a spontaneous event, a decade ago in a gallery somewhere, as Antin improvises his talks in response to the place and situation within which they take place, like site-specific art works. (To what degree they are spontaneous and how much they contain preconceived structures and set pieces I’m less sure – as is often the case with, say, jazz musicians. I am content not to knock too hard against the girders of the illusion.)

In listening I was both in the park and out of it. I was inside Antin’s story about his mother-in-law gradually forgetting an amazing story about her own youth due to Alzheimer’s, which made my woes feel far away, and yet I was also within the range of frisbees zooming over my head and couples necking on picnic blankets. His remembering was my forgetting, his mother-in-law’s forgetting was my remembering. This was site-specific too, though perhaps the site was some third place neither in the recording nor the park. Perhaps with someone absent.

I don’t think listening to music or a reading of a novel on my headphones would have had the same effect. Antin’s talks are conversational, so much so that they don’t feel one-way, even as they skip through his own recalled conversations with other artists or suddenly discourse on how Pythagoras would have calculated the value of pi with polygons and circles (and Antin, a scientist by training, specifies what kinds of polygons and circles) drawn in the sand, as that was all the material available to him, until an invading Senecan soldier trampled through his diagram. (This, he says, is the kind of way most of us interact with war who aren’t sent to fight it or in the place the soldiers are sent – it’s an absurdity that messes up our better intentions. The same could be said of emotional crises but I suppose probably shouldn’t?)

He’s been doing these talk-pieces since the late 1960s, initially in response to frustration with the canned feeling of reading written pieces aloud, then gradually as (I think) a project that builds and builds upon itself, as at the beginning of many talks he discusses what happened when he gave another talk, so they become a chattering common commentary, a talmudic meditation on Antin’s own speaking mind, think-talking. It’s experimental in the scientific sense as much as the artistic one: What happens if we now put the Antin in this environment? What phenomena can he observe himself observing? It’s a much more sophisticated version than most of the others of the reality games that are so common to art practice now, from “relational aesthetics” to what David Shields calls “reality hunger,” and it involves a lot fewer silly trappings than most, only the faith to follow Antin as he figures out where he’s going.

Because they’re such an exploration of the condition of being present (time/space), recordings and publications of his work have to be understood as subject to severe conditions of irony, which then carry over to the live performances, of course, and so his life is like ours.

On Tuesday night I did my best to introduce him and sound poet Steve McCaffery despite the fact that doing things with my voice felt pinched and artificial by comparison. He gave a generous talk on this year’s Scream theme of “agent provocateurs” (and/or the tradition (?) of the avant-garde), framing it in terms of the police repression that happened around the G20, and the kind of abstract and untrue economic “logic” that prevails in conversational spaces like the G20, and contrasting it to the narrative (which is misinterpreted as illogic) of dreams. And how Freud got things wrong because he understood classical story and not narrative. And the way that it matters more to animals what they look like to each other than what they look like to us.

He ended with a celebratory nod to the “energy” of the Scream asking this question about what meaning or use remains to the idea of an “avant-garde.” The theme was inspired by his 1981 talk-piece “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” – long out of print except, he advised me to say “drolly” in my introduction, in French – and which the Scream made available in its own reprint. That talk comes round to an assertion that if being avant-garde is anything it means to respond to the present, not to be somewhere ahead of it, intimating along the way that this might make the whole history of the concept kind of ridiculous. He forbore from suggesting that we at the Scream were ridiculous, therefore, to be discussing it still, 29 years after he gave that talk. I felt masochistically let down that he wasn’t tougher on us.

But I also wondered, never having seen him speak, about the twisting, knotting motion he continually made with his fingers, this man in his late 70s whom I’d come in the past couple of days to think of as a model for how to do something with your mouth and your mind that makes you not ridiculous, not inadvertently wrecking things with imprecision and passivity. I wondered if it was a tic of long standing, and so a sweet one, or a sign of a health condition, and so a sad one. Perhaps he was being nicer to himself than he used to be, which may not be avant-garde but is human and so perhaps it is avant-garde, as it is to tell someone your dreams and for their attention to drift away while you are telling the dream, even if you are, say, a surrealist.

You can’t expect your imaginative diversion machine to be someone else’s imaginative diversion machine, though we always try. Too often it might be the main thing we do with one another. (If this entry is too much like me telling you my dreams, I’ll understand if you stopped reading it.)

On his way off stage to much applause, after thanking me very kindly for my introduction, he rounded a corner and kicked over the glass of beer sitting beside my chair, sending Tankhouse Ale spreading all across the stained-wood floor of Toronto’s gothic, comically anglophilic Arts & Letters Club. (In the talk, at one of the tougher points, he referred to such unnecessarily ornate buildings where literary meetings are held as “machines for not thinking.”)

I’d seen it coming but hadn’t spoken in time (the only place you can speak), and I apologized for that, and he didn’t quite acknowledge it, but stepped gingerly forward, saying, “Just one of those days.”

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Filed under carl wilson, events, lectures, literature, poetry

One response to “David Antin’s “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” (1981/1993), 2010 Scream festival edition

  1. Dude, I am so . . . stoked that Antin is still (sorry) kicking it! I knew he’s pushing 80 and hasn’t published much recently. “what it means to be avant-garde” is one of my favorite books. One of its pieces, “the structuralist,” is my favorite poem of the 20th century: hilarious, heart-breaking, utopian, visionary, gossipy — a mini-epic. And Antin’s insights about language are so brilliant. One of his insights, one that his talk-poems are built around: that speech is much closer to poetry than to prose, as it proceeds by rhythm and association.

    Congrats on a good show, and thanks for the post. If you ever make it to Seattle again, I’ll lend you my Antin books if you want them.