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the art of with: a new avant-garde?

I was interested to read Charles Leadbeater’s new essay for Cornerhouse, The Art of With, earlier this week. Taking Leadbeater’s influential notion of “We-Think” – a new collaborative, participatory way of working rooted in Web 2.0- and applying it to both the arts sector and contemporary arts practice, The Art of With asserts that we are increasingly moving away from a notion of art that is predominantly “for” or “to” towards a new and inspiring 21st century “art of with” that turns spectators into producers, breaks down conventional hierarchies and promotes sharing and openness. Leadbeater suggests that artists and arts institutions should be “critically and creatively engaging” with this new culture, “exploring, probing, questioning, challenging it, opening up possibilities within it that commerce will not entertain,” citing works such as Martin Creed’s Work 850, Anthony Gormley’s plans for the 4th Plinth and Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave as examples of collaborative artworks.

Leadbeter’s essay makes for intriguing and often inspiring reading, but what especially interested me was his use of the term “avant-garde.” This term recurs numerous times throughout the text, with Leadbeter positing the participatory “art of with” as a new, 21st century avant-garde in opposition to that of the 20th century, which he defines as an avant-garde characterised by the principles of “separate and shock.” But what does Leadbeater really mean when he talks about a new “avant-garde”? He doesn’t clearly define what he means at any point, but it’s certainly a courageous choice of terminology, raising a whole number of interesting questions. 



The term “avant-garde” is often used in a very general, conversational sense to denote more or less anything that’s considered new, innovative or experimental. But in the academic territory that Leadbeater seems to be negotiating in this essay given his references to thinkers and theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord, it is often used with a rather more precise (though contested) definition. There are whole books dedicated to what we mean when we talk about “the avant-garde,” perhaps the most significant being Peter Bürger’s influential Marxist analysis of the character and function of avant-garde art, Theory of the Avant-Garde, which remains central to our understanding of this loaded term.

To vulgarise his argument hugely, Bürger asserts that the avant-garde artwork is that which represents a protest against the nature of art as an institution within alienated bourgeois society, challenging the conventional notion of art as autonomous, elevated or rarified, detached from everyday existence. For Bürger, an artwork such as Duchamp’s Fountain can be considered truly avant-garde because it mounts an attack on the status of art, through challenging the conventional modes of its production and reception, revealing the institution of art to be ideologically determined, and using a variety of strategies to attempt to integrate art into everyday life itself. Bürger describes how the avant-garde artworks of the Dada and Surrealist movements reflect the desire to dissolve the boundaries between art and life, integrating art into everyday existence and bringing about a state in which “praxis is aesthetic and art is practical.”

So much for the theory bit. Now, many people have challenged and criticised Bürger’s definition: some feel it is too limited or dogmatic, others that it is just too pessimistic – after all, Bürger essentially asserts that post-Dada and Surrealism, 20th century artwork has been merely “neo-avant-garde” – a repetition of the failed gestures of the earlier avant-garde movements – and denies the possibility of any subsequent avant-garde. He’s also been criticised by those such as Manchester University’s own Amelia Jones, who have identified the failure of his arguments to consider how works such as Fountain have subsequently been re-appropriated by the institution of art, ironically becoming representations of the very notions of “artistic genius” that Dada sought to challenge. But whether or not we “buy” Bürger’s definition of avant-gardism, or the various others set out by historians, critics and theorists, all this is at stake when Leadbeater employs the term “avant-garde” in The Art of With.



Read from this angle, Leadbeater’s notion of the 20th century avant-garde as being characterised by the desire to reinforce the separation of art and life, and by the idea of art as elevated and autonomous, seems a rather odd one. Like Adrian Slatcher (whose response to The Art of With you can read on his blog here) I would absolutely question the idea that the avant-garde could ever be considered non-collaborative. For me, it might be more interesting to interpret the participatory and collaborative artworks Leadbeater references as attempts to re-invigorate the ideas of the 20th century avant-garde movements such as Dada, Surrealism and Situationism: perhaps the “art of with” could in fact be better configured as not the opposition to but as the continuation of their project in its attempt to integrate art more closely into the fabric of everyday life. 



But can we really accept Leadbeater’s assertion that the “art of with” has the potential to become a 21st century avant-garde? It may be new, innovative and challenging but within this specific art theoretical framework, avant-garde it probably isn’t. But in the end, does it really matter? As with so many things, all this really comes down to is semantics. Yet all the same, it would have been interesting to see this essay take a closer look at the term Leadbeater uses to structure his account – its complexity, its contentiousness, its multiple definitions – as part of this otherwise engaging and pertinent essay about the possibilities for a 21st century art practice characterised by collaboration, a new participatory “art of with”.

If you’d like to read more, you can check out the draft essay here, comment on the text paragraph by paragraph here or join the wiki here. There will be also be seminar on The Art of With at Cornerhouse in June.

the arrival


I was recently given a copy of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I’ve never come across Tan’s work before, but after reading this thoughtful, beautifully-illustrated book – which is poised somewhere between a graphic novel and a children’s picture book – I’m an instant fan.

The Arrival is a universal story of migration and displacement, told through a series of wordless images. A man leaves his wife and child behind in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country of unknown customs and behaviours, mysterious objects, peculiar animals and indecipherable languages. Luckily many of the strangers he meets in this new metropolis have shared his experience, and transcending barriers of language and difference, are keen to help him on his way.

Tan’s exquisitely detailed illustrations in sepia tones evoke old family photographs and histories, creating a powerful nostalgic quality: this could easily be a story from some forgotten lost time gone before. However this hopeful, wistful tale is also peculiarly contemporary on its take on the universality of migrant experience, and the importance of communities and belonging. As Tan himself suggests in this interesting commentary on how the book came to be written, ‘we might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land.’

lovely lula

I think I have a new favourite magazine – the beautiful Lula. Just look at some of these glorious page spreads from the latest issue (no. 8) which I have been happily browsing this afternoon:



Whilst I can see that its style may be a bit girly and whimsical for some tastes, I have to say that for me it is an utter treat to read a fashion-led magazine which isn’t entirely focussed on persuading readers they desperately need to buy this week’s “must have” item and should slavishly follow the latest celebrity trends. Even better, Lula includes a minimal number of advertisements, which are placed only at the start and end of the magazine, meaning that as a reader, you aren’t constantly bombarded – or worse, left wondering what is genuine editorial and what is marketing copy.


As the ever-wise Hadley Freeman points out, “contrary to popular belief, fashion magazines aren’t catalogues” and the great thing about Lula is it really doesn’t feel like one. Rather than being primarily about shopping, Lula is really all about inspirations, ideas and aesthetics. OK so I’ll admit there’s a “sleb” or two in there but at least they’re not the usual suspects – this is, after all, a magazine that eschews the apparently inevitable choice of Victoria Beckham as fashion icon du jour in favour of such alternative (and far more interesting) choices as Louise Bourgeois, Gertrude Stein, Diana Vreeland and Peggy Guggenheim amongst others. And there are some thoughtful, interesting articles as well as beautiful fashion shoots – because guess what? The two aren’t mutually exclusive! This issue, for example, brings together a feature on Edie Beale, a life-size dolls house installation by artist Heather Benning, short fictions by Rupert Friend and Louise Cork, and an interview with the incomporable Luella, as well as a whole treasure trove of lovely images to enjoy.





The only thing I would say is that the typography can get a bit annoying: the distinctive Lula font designed by Becky Smith and Pedro Cid Proenca looks cute for titles but becomes a bit unreadable when used for larger blocks of body text. But that aside – what better way than to spend a lazy Saturday reading Lula, drinking tea and eating ginger biscuits?

I’m now feeling inspired by… boater hats; grossgrain ribbons; birds and butterflies; tea parties; hats with veils; paper cut-outs; 1940s hair; anti-minimalism; giant Alice in Wonderland bows; doodles; latter-day Victoriana; cup cakes and cocktails; plaits; ephemera; Dalmatians; seamed stockings; misty old photographs; layering; eye-popping rainbow brights; and wearing socks with peep-toe shoes. Lovely!

news and good stuff round-up

It has been a very busy week or two. It’s been one of those times when I suspect I might be a bit mad even attempting to have a full-time job at the same time as studying for an MA. On the other hand, though, it’s also been a really varied and interesting couple of weeks, so I can’t really complain too much.

Anyway, I will shortly be heading down to That London for a few days, but first, here are a few things I wanted to post – a quick round-up of news:

Apartment is closing its doors… The unique exhibition space in a council tower block flat, co-curated by Hilary Jack and Paul Harfleet will close its programme with a show by Giorgio Sadotti entitled ‘PAUL, PAUL IS THE ART’. The show runs until 2nd April and viewing is by appointment – check it out while you have the chance!

Throughout March, look out for the project If you read this, I’ll give it to you by artist Katya Sander throughout the public spaces of Manchester and Salford. Thousands of pin-badges bearing the statement “If you read this, I’ll give it to you (but then you must wear it too)” are moving through the cities, travelling from person to person. Badges will be available at sites within the city, and can be taken from anyone you see wearing them. The project is part of Whose Cosmopolitanism? a series of public events to launch the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures (RICC) at the University of Manchester which has also included events with visiting speakers such as David Harvey and Jacqueline Rose.

The Other Xeno-epistemic is an interesting event coming up at A Foundation on Friday 20 March. The event is part of TAXED, A Foundation’s series of events designed by locally-based artists which explore the power of imitation, and “art’s capacity to import other people’s ideas, to shamelessly replicate successful existing models, to beggar belief with its flagrant piracy!” This event has been literally “taxed” from a workshop by Sarat Maharaj at Test Site, Rooseum, Malmö in 2002, and involves a “sideways” reading of a chapter from Deleuze & Guttari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Participants are each assigned a footnote to research in advance, and will come together to discuss their findings and ideas, resulting in what Maharaj describes as “the kind of crazy-paving reading that makes [artists] ‘dodgy’ from the ‘doctoral’ point of view”. You can read more here, including details of how you can participate and view the results!

Nominations for this year’s Best of Manchester Awards are now open. There are categories for art, music and fashion (though sadly not for writing) so get nominating all your talented friends and neighbours!

And coming soon… Artyarn will be artists in residence at Contact throughout April and May as part of the AIRprogramme. As well as workshops and yarn bombing, they plan to produce a new piece of work, the Knitting Orchestra – an experimental sound piece produced directly from the act of knitting.

Take a look at the new Preston Writing Network which aims to “put Preston’s diverse and vibrant literary culture on the map,” promoting and developing new writing in Preston through on-line activity and a programme of workshops, live literature and more. The network is the writing strand of They Eat Culture, a new arts development company run from the Continental Arts Space in Broadgate, and there’s more information about how to get involved or submit work to the blog here.

Please find ZigZag! is a storytelling project launched by Litfest and writer David Gaffney. If you should happen to be in Lancaster, look out for a series of mysterious lost cat posters appearing around the city centre. These stories form the first part of a three-part story of unrequited love set in and around the Storey Institute. You can read more online by checking out both characters blogs – Fern and Charlie – though really, half the fun of this story is how it unravels in real time in the public spaces of Lancaster in a distinctly non-digital format.

Do check out Bewilderbliss, a new literary magazine dedicated to “new words from new writers” which showcases the poetry and prose of Manchester University and MMU postgraduate creative writing students. You can buy the brand new first issue (the theme is ‘The Guilty’) from the Cornerhouse foyer bookshop where I hear you can also get hold of Belle Vue, another new zine I’m hearing good things about from reliable sources (see here and here). I’m loving all this DIY publishing action going on at the moment!

Kate from The Manchizzle is organising a get-together for Manchester Bloggersat Centro on Tuesday (10 March). I plan to be there, and will be wearing my name-tag with pride!

On a similar blog-related note… I am astonished by the wealth of great new Manchester blogs I keep coming across at the moment – it feels like I discover one practically every day. If you want a good read, may I point you in the direction of Equine Obesity, Mithering Times and Blunt Fringe just for starters? And whatever you do, don’t miss Emily Powell’s My Shitty Twenties which is absolutely brilliant.

…I was reading somewhere recently that you should never write a blog post longer than a paragraph or two because people get bored and don’t bother reading it. That’s a rule I absolutely fail to observe on this blog, and I have certainly broken it very conclusively today. If you’re still with me, well done you. And you’ll probably be relieved to hear that I’ve now finished.

monday inspirations: title sequences


I honestly think that the title sequence is probably my favourite part of a lot of films. There’s something about that moment just when the titles begin, the music starts and the audience stop shuffling and whispering and chomping down popcorn and suddenly go quiet, as if by the wave of an invisible magic wand.

If I was a film-maker, I think I would especially love making those title sequences. Maybe I’d even forget about making the films themselves, and just concentrate on making really beautiful title sequences – hints to imaginary stories that are never told. For me, what makes the titles so interesting is that they are a question mark – they set the tone for what is to come, atmospherically, stylistically – but at the same time, they can’t give too much away. But simultaneously, as a framing device, they demonstrate that the story is exactly that – just a story, no more, no less.

I was pleased to discover Art of the Title recently, via the lovely myturtleneck blog. Art of the Title is a site entirely dedicated to title sequences – taking its inspiration from that moment “when your heart sank just a little when you realized the Pink Panther movie wasn’t a cartoon.” The site has a great selection of images from both iconic and little-known title sequences, as well as video clips you can watch.

Who could resist, for example, the glorious title sequence to Amélie?

Mmmmm… dreaming of summer and raspberries – ideally one for each finger. March is finally here, and it feels like spring is on the way. Other good things from today: mocha; homemade currant cake; a rainbow of coloured pens; listening to the new Lily Allen album (which I know I’m not supposed to like, but I do anyway); excellent new woolly socks; a riot of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils in the park; getting things crossed off the to do list; and an enormous bowl of spaghetti bolognese on its way for my dinner. How have your Mondays been?

(It has become obvious to me from writing these lists that most of the things that cheer me up are things to eat. But what can you do? Can’t help it – just greedy. Now I’m off for another piece of that cake…)