By Emily Kramer
Over the weekend Princeton University held a three-day conference in which the looming question hung: “What intellectual and technological insights emerge when we attempt to represent avant-garde periodicals?” Indeed this spawned even more questions than it provided answers, however, the complexity, beauty, and value inherent in the materials surfaced in the process. As the guest lecturers of Panel 1: Representing the Avant-Garde Magazine displayed, the zeitgeist of the avant-garde has the potential for being both compromised by the digital archive as well as embraced.
The event unveiled the impetus for properly digitizing the collections in which the playful, analytical spirit of the 20th century avant-garde art movement can be preserved, and maybe even enhanced by the technological renaissance of today.
To begin, an overview of what qualifies as an avant-garde periodical may be appropriate. It is a somewhat ambiguous term given ‘avant-garde’ translates into an expression of ‘being at the forefront’, ‘progressive’ or ‘experimental’ and therefore can be applied liberally to anything that fulfills this definition. In the context of the conference it signified specifically the 19th and 20th century art movement originating out of France and Italy, and running rampant across Europe, Russia and the United States thereafter.
The speakers of the conference: Kurt Beals of Washington University in St. Louis, Jonathan Ballehache of the University of Georgia, Sophie Selta of the University of London and Columbia University, and finally Max Koss of the University of Chicago, all presented their research on an avant-garde periodical of interest and their experience with both its archival physicality and digital existence.
Kurt Beals initiated the conversation with the complications of translating the intrinsic playfulness of the Dada movement across mediums. Presenting the work of Raoul Hausmann, a leading Dadaist in the Berlin movement, he first confronts a common misconception of the Dadaist as ‘nonsensical.’ He points to Hausmann’s work with the magazine, Der Dada, a 1919 publication that asserted the political and artistic positions of the Berlin group.
According to Beals research, the Dadaist relied heavily on coded meaning inspired by shifts in communication with the advent of such things as the telephone, binary code, and the printing press. They were hyper-aware of the ways this affected language; the process of encoding, transmission, and decoding were an intellectual priority to the print. As seen in the cover of a 1919 edition of Der Dada, this can initially register as nonsense (much like binary or printing codes at first glance).
Beal notices in his research that the Dadaist were in fact far from nonsensical. They accounted for and incorporated the physicality of the paper magazine into the conceptual nature of the work. This means that to transcribe merely the text and two-Dimensional aspects of the magazine is to dispose of the meaning built into its structure as a physical object. He notes that in Raoul Hausmann’s typographical design there are hidden messages, such as “Dada is God,” which appear when you kinetically interact with the paper. By turning the physical object in ways that the symbols direct and which cannot be easily reproduced in digital interface, you experience the transmission of language from image and text into content.
Beals suggest that with a digital archive that embraces fluid and interchangeable interface these nuances can be experienced, otherwise they will be lost. He establishes another contrary characteristic of the Dadaist that he realized in his research: their attraction to commercialization and distribution. The reason Dada translation is a subject of inquiry within digital archive theory is that they were prolific in their production and invaluable in the formation of the avant-garde at large. Just as they ingested new forms of communication developing in the 20th century, they used the rise of capitalism and product distribution to their artistic advantage. They were not shy is selling their work on newsstands, handing out flyers, or other means that may seem contrary to the sanctity of originality believed by most artist before them.
It was therefore concluded that the digital archive will actually further this Dadaist conception of encoding and distribution with its introduction into digital transcription. Beals warns of the potentially missed experience or understanding in not properly translating the material, and is pragmatic in his awareness that the digital will never equate the original; however, with innovative digital design built to the characteristics of the material, an informative experience can manifest. This would mean challenging standardized archiving practice that has traditionally been executed within institutions of repositories. To properly recreate provenance when archiving materials such as avant-garde magazines, experience needs to be taken into consideration.
The spirit of the avant-garde is purposely shocking, playful, and critical; the artists wanted to unveil the rawness and beauty of humanity through their artistic medium. When pairing the topic with contemporary issues within the digital humanities, such as how to properly translate content and essence over various medias, we are reminded that the nature of technology is inherently similar to that of the avant-garde. It is a relatively new forefront with the potential to be shocking, playful, and critical in the ways it displays content. The conference spoke towards activating this artistic latency.
The speakers of this Friday panel did not begin with such lofty idealism, however. All four-guest speakers began their presentations with the many untranslatable qualities between printed material and digital interface, especially when dealing with such specific periodicals as those produced by the Avant-Garde. As mentioned before, Beals exemplified this paradoxical quality of the digital archive to simultaneously hinder and advance artistic understanding of physically complex periodicals through proper interface.
There was also a call for more metadata by speaker, Max Koss, who works with the periodical, Pan. He contends that many of the qualities of the publication are medium based, such as the sheer size of the object that is often unnoticeable in picture, the details of translucent paper that cannot be scanned or imagined in relation to the other pages, or the different papers used for different artistic prints featured in the publication. He also notes that numerous editions of the same publication are common practice among artistic periodicals: artist editions, editions of different materials, editions of different languages, ECT, are for the most part not realized unless noted. The only way to properly inform researches is through extensive metadata, a necessary component for understanding the magazine on an academic level.
Counter arguments were of course brought up as well, such as: economy, efficiency, and usability of complex digital interface in archives. The practicality of initiating such endeavors was daunting, however the benefits of page-turning facsimile, hyperlinking, digital distribution, text mining, and color-metrics are only recently being realized. The sense of the conference was more about raising awareness of the complications of standardizing digitization efforts, and to invigorate future archivists to incorporate more interactive methods in the process. The sponsoring organization of the conference was Princeton’s Blue Mountain Project, “whose mission is to create a freely available digital repository of important, rare, and fragile texts that both chronicle and embody the emergence of cultural modernity in the West”.
Their site is a good resource for anyone interested in periodicals, particularly ones artistically oriented. Currently, the site is less than perfect in expressing the qualities their conference advocates for. The speakers themselves noted certain failures in translating their text and the members present jovially agreed. However, it is refreshing to see a digital archive mission statement that is committed to working through the issues at hand, unafraid to confront the work that needs to be done, and the reality of individualized digitization for individualized periodicals. “Remediating the Avant-Garde,” can then be seen as a call to transform the digital archive into a tool for understanding artistic periodicals, as well as opportunity for the digital archive to absorb the avant-garde ethos.
 Avant-Garde defined by Princeton: http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Avant-garde.html
 While all participates contributed in articulating the problems and potential for digital archiving, I will elaborate on Beals’ and Koss’ presentations in regard to brevity.
 “Dada: Nihilistic movement in the arts… It originated in Zürich, Switz., in 1916… The movement grew out of disgust with bourgeois values and despair over World War I. The archetypal Dada forms of expression were the nonsense poem.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dada
 Blue Mountain Project: http://library.princeton.edu/projects/bluemountain/