the 'vivifying current of science':

Avant-Garde Arts in the techno-scientific age

  Image from "A Clockwork Orange"   (1971) directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess.

Image from "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess.

The Philadelphia Avant-Garde Studies Consortium (PASC) is seeking proposals for papers, lightning presentations, performances, and exhibitions for its 2018 Symposium, “The ‘Vivifying Current of Science’: Avant-Garde Arts in the Techno-Scientific Age,” which will be held Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, from 1 to 6 pm, in the Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts in the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library.

In his “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto” of 1910, Umberto Boccioni proclaimed that “the vivifying current of science” would “soon deliver painting from academicism” and posited that science was the ideal model for the arts: “Victorious science has nowadays disowned its past in order the better to serve the material needs of our time; we would that art, disowning its past, were able to serve at last the intellectual needs which are within us.” In stark contrast, Hans Arp saw the techno-philia of Futurists and modern society in general as true madness: “The Renaissance taught men the haughty exaltation of their reason. Modern times, with their science and technology, dedicated them to megalomania. The confusion of our epoch is the result of this overestimation of reason.”

It is no accident that the emergence of many avant gardes coincided with the surge of techno-scientific advances from the late 19th century to the present. Science has often functioned as “the shock of the new” that sparked innovation in the arts. From quantum physics and Pavlovian psychology to LSD and nuclear weapons, from space travel and genetic engineering to global climate change and cyberwarfare, from frontal lobotomies and Prozac to gender reassignment surgery and artificial intelligence, science and technology have transformed and continue to transform the world, radically reshaping our external and internal lives and our concept of the human. Such profound, pervasive change has elicited powerful artistic responses.

Artists such as Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, Djuna Barnes, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Kubrick, Laurie Anderson, Bruce Nauman and Zadie Smith (to name just a few), have been obsessed with the techno-scientific world while simultaneously mocking it, conveying the amazement inspired by scientific discoveries and technological developments yet also comically undermining unquestioned belief in “victorious science.” In a more political vein, Allen Ginsberg in “Plutonian Ode” and “Howl” and Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night, sought to inspire revolt against the hegemony of techno-science, urging readers to see themselves as “crusaders” ready to “attack the hard core of technology land … some sexo-technological variety of neo-fascism” (Mailer). Today, artists such as Natelie Jeremenjenko, with her Bureau of Inverse Technology and artworks that entail the design and execution of scientific experiments; and Trevor Paglen, with his use of everything from Fukushima radioactive waste to satellite surveillance technologies, have attempted to open up the Latourian black box of techno-science, revealing the social, cultural, political, and economic forces inside.

We seek presentations from individuals, groups, and collaborating artists and/or scholars in four major categories: scholarly papers (max 20 minutes); lightning presentations on artistic and scholarly projects (max 7 minutes), small-scale exhibitions, and brief performances (max 10 minutes). In examining your avant-garde figure, group, theory, or movement (roughly 1875 to the present; local, national, or global), you might consider one or more of the following questions: How did science and technology influence or shape the form, content, materials, and techniques of their art? In what ways have they commented on the socio-political aspects of science and technology through their work? How did they use science and/or technology to “make it new,” to be “experimental”? In what ways does their work relate to theory in the history and sociology of science, the digital humanities, the medical humanities, or environmental studies? How do they view the “post-natural” world, the “Anthropocene Era,” the “End of Nature”? Ben Franklin’s city is, of course, the birthplace of American Science, and so a focus on artists or groups with a connection to Philadelphia is a plus, but it is by no means a requirement. 

If you would like to participate in the symposium, please send a proposal (150-300 words) by Oct. 7, 2018, to pascinitiative@gmail.com with the subject line, “2018 Symposium Proposal.” If you know of others who might like to participate, please feel free to pass this CFP along to them or visit our website, www.pasc-arts.org, for more information about PASC (a 501.c.3 nonprofit).