Transformative Avant-Garde as an Initiative for Change
The rise of avant-garde art movements can be dated back to the 1910s although they became most prominent during the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout their historical development, the umbrella term – avant-garde art – encompassed movements such as Dadaism, futurism and surrealism from the 1910s up until the 1940s. Later, socially engaged avant-garde (1920s-30s), critical neo-avant-garde (1960s-70s) and situationist cultural avant-garde (1960s-70s) became prominent in the art scene. Peter Bürger provides a definition of the European avant-garde movements as “an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society” where the attack is mainly directed at institutions that influence our daily lives. The main aim of avant-garde movements was to abolish autonomous art by integrating art into the praxis of life instead. After they allegedly failed to sublate art into the praxis of life, theorists like Bürger found neo-avant-garde art to be inauthentic because it lost its shock value and essentially “institutionalizes the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions.”
Krzysztof Wodiczko, a polish multi-media artist and theorist, has attempted to revive avant-garde art by introducing a new movement known as transformative avant-garde. In his manifesto, he has outlined this type of art’s presence as something urgently needed in the current world as demonstrated by its contemporary function of creating publicly meaningful events through the presentation of socially radical content. Furthermore, he argues that avant-garde art can help us evolve instead of adding to mass production and thus satisfying public expectations and demands.
One example of transformative avant-garde that can be considered is Wodiczko’s The Tijuana Projection (2001), which focused on the theme of women’s labour and migration from Mexico to the USA and resulted in a live projection on the surface of globe-like El Centro Cultural space in Tijuana. This interrogative design can largely be seen as an intervention and a subversion of the meaning that this space is usually ascribed with through the use of a public projection. This particular case study raises questions about engagement in the public sphere, the use of technology and subversion of control as all of these issues are particularly relevant for the state of today’s society and its subsequent potential for change. Therefore, this essay will aim to answer the question: how can Wodiczko’s The Tijuana Projection (2001) – through its use of public space, close-ups and real-time projection – function as a “weapon” against the society of control and the spectacle?
The essay begins with an introduction to transformative avant-garde and links this movement to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Gilles Deleuze’s The Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992). Both of these texts operate on a theoretical basis and its authors do not provide actual examples of how to counter the society of the spectacle or control. Hence, Wodiczko’s transformative avant-garde piece, The Tijuana Projection, is introduced as a concrete example that can resist the status quo. The second section elaborates on Wodiczko’s positioning of the projection in a public space and discusses it in relation to Jürgen Habermas’ conceptualization of a public sphere. The third section elaborates further on how The Tijuana Projection was executed, especially in connection to Wodiczko’s use of close-ups, technology and real-time projection. These sections serve to demonstrate how these aspects of his work can ultimately function as a weapon by temporarily disrupting the society of control and the spectacle.
 Wodiczko, 1999, 29-30.
 Bürger, 1984, 49.
 Bürger, 1984, 53-54.
 Bürger, 1984, 57-58.
 Wodiczko, 2014, 115.
 Wodiczko, 2014, 111-112.
 Wodiczko, 2003, 422.
SECTION I: TRANSFORMATIVE AVANT-GARDE
Krzysztof Wodiczko agrees with Peter Bürger that avant-garde’s initial intentions failed and that today the term feels outdated and of little interest to the art scene. He states that this was mainly due to great public expectations and individuals’ burden of responsibility about how to best express oneself. However, in contrast to Bürger who mainly addresses past avant-garde movements, Wodiczko’s text The Transformative Avant-garde functions as a manifesto addressing the present and introduces a new art form known as transformative avant-garde. According to Wodiczko, this new historical development of avant-garde should suggest alternative agendas and methodologies while continuing to have an active role in “intelligent, critical, post-contestation and post-deconstructive engagement through social design and civic practice.” He argues that transformative avant-garde should not respond to current public expectations and privileged market demands but rather should respond to presently existing needs that are generally neglected and ignored. In his text, he refers to Joseph Pine and James Gilmore who predict that the Experience Economy, interpreted as today’s marketing aesthetics, will soon be replaced by the Transformation Economy where the main goal would be to understand the desires of individual customers and businesses, hence, turning the consumer into a product. Therefore, transformative avant-garde requires that people prepare themselves for the emergence of the Transformation Economy where “the approaching appropriation of our very existential transformations of ourselves” will most likely occur. In fact, it can be argued that this historical phase has already begun in response to the mass use of social media and companies’ adoption of algorithms that are capable of tracking individual consumer behaviour and adjusting the displayed content accordingly. As such, Wodiczko’s call for the creation of publicly meaningful events infiltrated with “ethically and socially radical content” is more urgent than ever.
Furthermore, it is important to analyse the certainly visible reactions to canonical texts such as Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Gilles Deleuze’s The Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992). Debord defines the spectacle not as a collection of images but rather “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” In addition, the spectacle can be limitedly defined as “mass media” which function as apparatuses infused with power that operate according to their needs. In this sense, the media interpret our perception of reality within a rather simplified narrative, which is a situation that is quite relevant when assessing people’s excessive reliance on technology in today’s society. Hence, Debord argues that this has negatively affected people’s quality of life and knowledge and hampered critical thinking. He portrays mass society as resolutely passive and manipulated which has ultimately resulted in universal societal alienation. However, the main limitation in his argumentation is that he fails to provide specific and convincing solutions on how to oppose the spectacle. In Debord’s final thesis, he briefly refers to how self-emancipation and developing a class consciousness can help resist the spectacle, but this is still a rather abstract and utopian solution.
A similar trend can be observed in Deleuze’s text as it responds to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish (1975), which discusses the system of operation of disciplinary societies where hierarchical observation, normalization of judgement, and examination of the subject predominate. Deleuze alternatively proposes that post-industrial societies are no longer disciplinary but rather function as societies of control. He justifies this by arguing that societies of control emerged together with neo-liberalism and hence, the functioning of markets is the main tool of social control that formulates the “imprudent breed of our masters.” In such a society, power is more decentralized and dispersed and provides a mere illusion of freedom. In contrast to disciplinary societies, which can be interpreted as a closed system, people currently live in an open system where technology mediates the multiplication of control and diffusion of responsibility. As a result, Deleuze calls for taking action against this system by stating: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” Similarly to Debord, Deleuze does not provide any concrete examples of the types of forms these weapons might take. Therefore, it is important to turn from theory to practice in order to identify some of the possible “weapons” that can subvert the system of control and the spectacle that both Deleuze and Debord elaborate upon. Hence, the following sections will attempt to provide an example of a potentially existing weapon through Krzysztof Wodiczko’s The Tijuana Projection (2001).
SECTION II: PUBLIC SPHERE AND PUBLIC PROJECTION
The Tijuana Projection is a live public projection created by Krzysztof Wodiczko which took place on the 23rd and 24th of February in 2001 as part of a public art festival known as inSite 2000, which was situated on both sides of the Mexican-American border where Wodiczko’s projection became the closing event of the festival. The specific site of the projection took place in Tijuana, the centre of maquiladoras, which can be defined as foreign-owned factories located on the borders of Mexico and the USA where low-paid workers assemble imported parts and turn them into ready-made products for export. Approximately 90% of such labour is carried out by young women who face a myriad of socially and psychologically problematic checkpoints, regardless of whether they cross the borders of the two countries. Six women participated in Wodiczko’s public projection and verbally shared with the public their personal experiences of police brutality on the borders, work exploitation, and domestic and work-place sexual abuse – all in association with the maquiladoras. These women’s faces (accompanied by their voices) were then projected onto the surface of a globe-like building, El Centro Cultural, which is the city’s urban and cultural icon. Since the event became a form of public testimony, it is crucial to analyse Wodiczko’s strategy of positioning this projection in a public space.
As a cultural centre, El Centro Cultural aims to “meet the artistic and cultural needs of the population through set of services in different art forms and themes of contemporary culture.” The building can be interpreted as a negotiated space between the state and the public as both forces have their impact on it. Hence, El Centro Cultural can be connected to Jürgen Habermas’ conceptualization of the public sphere as a place where people gather and exchange ideas that is accessible to everyone. Habermas proposes that in modern societies, the public sphere has contributed to the formulation of the political sphere through the involvement of public opinion as formulated by rational and critical discussion. In his text he mainly deals with a model of a liberal bourgeois public sphere, however, he argues that with the emergence of “welfare state mass democracy” in late twentieth century, the model is no longer feasible. In the meantime, he does not develop a new, post-bourgeoise model of a public sphere and does not address the problematics of his initial model.
Even though, his ideas are to a strong extent Eurocentric, outdated and do not account for the existence of hegemony perpetuated in alike public spheres, it can be argued that his ideas are still relevant, as public spheres defined in Habermas’ terms still in some respects exist today and have a strong presence in society, as in the case of El Centro Cultural. At the same time, his reflections need to be re-thought in today’s historical and cultural context of a post-modern society in order to identify what are the possible alternatives that can challenge the bourgeoise public sphere.
Habermas believes that the public sphere is the main democratizing force in society. In conversation with Patricia Phillips, Wodiczko argues otherwise as he proposes that “democracy is always unfinished and can never be understood as completed.” Furthermore, he states that while people generally accept the idea that democracy and the public sphere correlate with each other, this is only a chimera. Wodiczko and Phillips note that at the moment, it is more important for artists especially to introduce new forms of democracy through their work, which ideally function as a disruption and a challenge to the system and hence, contribute to the perception of democracy as a dynamic and ongoing process. Wodiczko and Phillips, therefore, align themselves with Laclau and Mouffe’s theorization of democracy perceived as an antagonism. Instead of a solution, antagonism implies a process of engagement in the form of contestation and confrontation. Laclau and Mouffe question Habermas’ rationalistic position on democracy where for him, the main goal is to achieve a consensus. Rather than the public sphere structured by a unilateral public opinion, their perception of democracy is more connected to the public space, highlighting the presence of a variety of voices in society.
In a similar manner, Nancy Fraser attempts to apply the above-mentioned notion of a public sphere to the stratified post-modern society of the present. She reviews Habermas’ notion of a single bourgeois public sphere which she perceives as creating a sense of a false “we,” mirroring the needs of the more dominant members of society while ignoring the majority of the less powerful citizens. She argues that in a stratified society, disadvantaged social groups such as women, workers, people of colour and queer communities have the possibility of formulating a multitude of “counterpublics” contra to the unilateral bourgeois that dominate the public sphere. As a result, she encourages greater acknowledgement of heterogeneous public spheres as “arrangements that permit contestation among a plurality of competing publics.” Instead of attempting to merge the aspirations of different social groups, these arrangements can instead express the complexity of a stratified society, which makes the needs of oppressed social groups visible, as “what in the past was not public in the sense of being a matter of common concern should now become so.”
While El Centro Cultural is recognized as Tijuana’s cultural hub and posits itself as an inclusive space, the fact that people must buy their tickets to attend events in advance creates a social and class division that hampers its intended openness and inclusiveness. Therefore, Wodiczko’s choice to have the projection on the surface of the building instead of inside it can be interpreted as a critique of the promotion of democracy where exclusion in alike public spheres is still perpetuated. Instead, he chose a public space for his work in order to disrupt the flow of dominant narratives reproduced in the building and made public the often untold and unheard narratives of some of the discriminated subjects in society. In this sense, Wodiczko’s projection of these women’s faces and voices into the public space turned into a critical alternative which allowed for the existence of a counterpublic, functioning in opposition to the dominant public sphere embodied by the inside of El Centro Cultural. Through contestation and confrontation, The Tijuana Projection evoked a sense of political urgency by shedding light on a previously taboo topic and suddenly turned the conditions of the women working in maquiladoras into a matter of common concern – contributing to a perception of democracy as an unfinished and ongoing process.
SECTION III: THE EXECUTION OF THE TIJUANA PROJECTION
This section will now focus on Wodiczko’s use of close-ups and real-time projecting. Each of the six women participating wore a “head-mounted camera-microphone and wearable transmission equipment and loud-speaker system” which immediately enabled them to project their faces and make their voices audible to the public. Thanks to its design, the camera (Figure 2) always stayed in the same position and focused on the face no matter how the person was moving or where the person was looking. The faces suddenly became transformed into alien objects that were facing and speaking to the public.
Mary Ann Doane states that for cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, the close-up is a gateway to the optical unconscious, “making visible what in daily life went unseen.” She then links his statement to her argument that as the facial close-up decapitates and fragments the body, the screen onto which the face is projected becomes a surface onto which the world is reduced to. This realization can be also connected to The Tijuana Projection as the projected face suddenly blurs the boundary between the architecture and the projected body. The screen can be interpreted as El Centro Cultural, which is constantly shifting in focus between the background and foreground being both the face and the building. Hence, the close-up transforms these women into “a quasi-tangible thing, producing an intense phenomenological experience of presence” as it simultaneously “becomes a sign, a text, a surface that demands to be read.” Béla Balázs argues that the spectator needs to “read between the lines,” and because the face is the “intensification of a locus of signification,” it might be more easily read due to the universal comprehensibility of the face, its gestures and expressions. Hence, Wodiczko’s strategy of using the close-up to project the women’s faces is successful due to the language of signification which facilitated the audience’s understanding of the women’s complex stories. As a result, such a situation has the potential to make the spectator read between the lines and listen to intimate and personal stories, which can then be connected to larger issues within the system as represented the problems that women working in maquiladoras face.
Furthermore, it can also be argued that the women’s faces were looking directly at “us,” creating a mirror-like situation. As Balázs proposes, the-close ups of human faces only refer to our own selves, creating a crisis in the opposition between the subject (the viewer) and the object (the close-up). Furthermore, as Helen Westgeest argues, the video can function as a reflective medium with a double meaning, serving “as reflective mirror and as reflective medium for self-reflection that includes the observer as Other.” Wodiczko also used his projection as a psychological tool that contributed “to the viewer’s awareness of self-other perceptions” through its immediacy.  As young women from Mexico are often the disregarded Other (based on their sex, class, and race) in both American and Mexican society, the projection allowed them to have a temporarily dominant presence in Tijuana. In addition, the women possibly made it easier for people to relate to such stories because they may have had similar experiences that they did not dare share with others due to their taboo content. In this situation, a private confession became a public testimony. This effect resulted in shifting societal dynamics by turning the viewer into the Other as the women suddenly embodied a powerful position. Therefore, the use of close-ups can be also interpreted as a method of resistance to narrative linearity, transforming itself towards a “manageable temporality of contemplation.” Thus, the execution of the projection allowed society to better understand who inhabits Tijuana and how they experience life in the city.
The projection of each woman’s face became enormous, out of scale and larger than in real-life, thus overwhelming the viewer. As observed in Figure 3, the giganticness of the projected faces stimulates a state of hypnosis making it difficult for the viewer to look away. Even if only temporarily, the close-up “constitute(s) itself as the totality, the only entity there to be seen.” However, in contrast to the notion of totality understood in Debord’s terms as linked to the society of the spectacle, Wodiczko’s totality disrupts the dominant totality of commodified culture and intervenes in the system by using the strategies of the spectacle. However, by presenting narratives that do not alienate but rather connect people, he temporarily disrupts the functioning of the system.
Real-Time Video Projecting & The Use of Technology
In alignment with technological developments, many artists use real-time projection or video streaming techniques in order to provide viewers with a sense of immediacy, indexicality and movement in time and place. One of the often-discussed examples is Wolfgang Staehle’s Empire 24/7 (1999-2004) which is a reproduction of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) and can be placed in the context of innovative technological development. Warhol’s experimental video is static, has a long duration and lacks narration which allowed him to emphasize the passing of time. Instead, Staehle’s Empire 24/7 is an installation which uses digital technology and happened to capture the moment of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While this installation allowed for the trespass of spatial and temporal constrictions through the use of technology, the flow of time expressed through this work suddenly became unexpected and shocking. Staehle contributed to innovation through his use of new technologies which realized Warhol’s original intent of observing time in real time, yet at 15 frames per minute.
Staehle’s and Wodiczko’s real-time works are very different from each other as they have distinct goals. Even though Staehle’s installation involves a shocking event, it still demonstrates the flow of time and refers to its linearity through the Empire State Building as a symbol of America’s power and progress. In contrast, Wodiczko disrupts the flow of time by showing a temporary real-time projection of women who do not have a voice in the dominant time of the Global World. As Wodiczko deals with the topic of migration in his work, it is possible to connect The Tijuana Projection to Miguel Hernández-Navarro’s argument that migration can be always interpreted as an “out of the clock” and “out of synch” experience. Furthermore, he proposes that the heterogenous human experience of time has been substituted with the time of capital – “the single time of production and technology” – highlighted by the elimination of “dead times,” or human times which escape the attention of the spectacle. As a result of the emergence of the time of capital, the suppression of “in-between” times occurs. These “in-between” times can be understood as migrant temporalities which disturb the illusion of a monolithic, shrunken and accelerated Western time frame. Based on Hernández-Navarro’s arguments, I would like to propose that The Tijuana Projection points to the discontinuity of Western hegemonic time and urges the viewers to “adjust their clock.”
The Tijuana Projection enriches the viewers’ perception of the heterogeneity of temporalities that structure the present, which are simultaneously effective in dismantling single time and the narrative of “the imaginary time of globalization.” By unmasking temporal conflicts, this work brings to attention the constructedness and artificiality of Western chronology. Correspondingly, the projection provides the viewers with real knowledge about the people that comprise Tijuana’s society. Wodiczko is enabling the time of the Other to enter the Western accelerated time of technology, which therefore undermines its initial ideology of technological development and disrupts the dominant Western time and narrative. This utterly contrasts with Staehle, who reproduced the chronology and continuum of the Western time by utilizing the symbolic structure of the Empire State Building.
As already mentioned above, The Tijuana Projection took place over two evenings (February 23 and 24) for only a few hours. In conversation with Phillips, Wodiczko states that in many of his works, he “tried to equip unheard individuals with a prosthetic device so that they can more effectively break the silence.” For him, such technology allows victims to begin a process of healing that will eventually help them become more active agents in society both directly (by speaking out) and indirectly (through the use of Wodiczko’s device). Furthermore, he states that “with the device they are armed with memory,” where memory gets the chance to be consolidated via the instrument.60] Hence, these newly created devices allow unstable situations to take place, which can lead to opportunities for transformation and disruption. This was also the case of The Tijuana Projection, as the technology allowed the six women to speak by transforming them from unheard and invisible societal subjects to inescapable public faces and voices of trauma and oppression. The viewers were also able to see the process behind the projection as the women were visible with their prosthetic devices and standing close to the projection, which created a sense of transparency and openness.
Through the use of technology, Wodiczko together with these women turned the public projection into a weapon directed at the system, which continuously perpetuates this oppression due to its geopolitical needs, and exposed it to the public. The real-time and short exposure time of the projection functioned as a disruption pointing to the urgency that is required from society if it is to act against the status quo. If the projection were to last for a long time or merely stream content from a pre-recorded video material, the work’s immediacy and impact would be lost. The projection would then become a decoration referring to its constructedness. Instead, Wodiczko’s use of technology and real-time projecting corresponds with the work’s “realness” and hence also the reality of the women’s experiences. Therefore, Wodiczko’s use of technology is not based on mere alignment with technological progress that involves situating oneself amidst such development while simultaneously reproducing it (as Staehle did), but instead involved adopting technology as an enabling tool that de-stabilizes dominant positions.
The essay has explored the potential existence of “weapons” directed against the society of control and the spectacle, namely through the case study of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s The Tijuana Projection. The analysis has demonstrated that there is an urgent need to creatively intervene in the system in order to provide new perspectives that do not align themselves with the hegemonic narrative of the globalized world. These creative interventions, such as those in the form of transformative avant-garde, have instead introduced ways to expose the oppressive operation of the system by turning it from something invisible to a suddenly extremely palpable situation. By situating itself in the public space but still on the surface of an important symbol of the city, El Centro Cultural, the illusion of democracy perpetuated in such places can be highlighted. At the same time, Wodiczko’s projection offered an alternative public sphere to that of El Centro Cultural in the form of an antagonism, enabling a process of engagement through confrontation to come into existence.
Furthermore, Wodiczko’s choice to project close-ups of the women’s faces created a mirror-like situation for the viewers where the societal dynamics of self-other perceptions could be shifted. As a result, this strategy not only allowed the viewers to read between the lines and understand the women’s complex stories but also enabled their own self-reflection. Moreover, Wodiczko’s strategy of using technology and real-time projection unmasked the existence of “in-between” times which disrupt the chronology of monolithic and accelerated Western time. Wodiczko’s newly created technological devices also emphasize the utilitarian function of technology which should aim to be enabling and activating rather than exclusively aligning itself with technological progress structured in dominance. All these aspects of Wodiczko’s projection indicate that it can be interpreted as a weapon temporarily subverting the society of control and the spectacle.
To conclude, while there are many existing weapons of subversion, it is necessary to identify and analyse them to enable the shift from temporary to permanent subversion. Since art serves as a powerful tool that can interrupt the system, supporting artworks like that of Wodiczko can result in many possibilities. Although I only analysed one particular artwork and ascribed considerable power to it (which certainly cannot speak for all works of transformative avant-garde), a pattern concerning how to identify such weapons can still be deduced. Therefore, such small interruptions of the system can function as a wake-up call for society and can have extensive power when identified and used together. Hence, it is important that artists and designers realize their power as creative agents with the ability to counter passivity and determinism. What we are left with is hope for the emergence of a multitude of weapons utilized by a different society that rejects hierarchy and oppression in favour of a better, brighter and more equal future.
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 The inSite art festival was founded in 1992 and Wodiczko was part of its fourth edition (2000-2001). The festival always took place in the San Diego/Tijuana border region and focused on site-specific art. On their website, they state that the main goals of the festival are “to produce relevant work, to promote research, and activate urban spaces through transcendental group experiences” (inSite, 2018).
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 On the website of México es Cultura, it is refered to the “set of services” in the form of a “theater, IMAX Dome, video room, … Museo de las Californias, … children’s area called CECUTi–, a botanical garden, the Moon Forum, aquarium, the International Gallery The Cube, the Documentation Center for the Arts, the Carlos Monsivais Room, …, coffee shop, a book store, and a souvenir shop” (México es Cultura, 2018).
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 Habermas states that the bourgeoise public sphere may be conceived: “as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor” (Habermas, 1989 , 27).
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[39 According to Walter Benjamin, the optical unconscious can be connected to film and photography and specifically how these mediums contributed to the enhancement of human perception. In his text The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility (2006) , he states that close-ups and slow motion expose “a vast and unsuspected field of action… With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended… bringing to light entirely new structures of matter” (117). Furthermore, in another text A Short History of Photography (1931) he connects the term optical unconscious to photography and argues: “it is possible, for example, however roughly, to describe the way somebody walks, but it is impossible to say anything about that fraction of a second when a person starts to walk. Photography with its various aids (lenses, enlargements) can reveal this moment. Photography makes aware for the first time the optical unconscious, just as psychoanalysis discloses the instinctual unconscious” (7).
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[45 Westgeest, 2016, 56.
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[51 The installation was composed of a digital still camera sending an image of the Empire State Building every four seconds to a New York’s Postmaster Gallery in 2001 (Empire 24/7, 2011).
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