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A web-based live art story

Franklin Furnace And The Spirit Of The Avant-Garde: A History Of The Future
by Toni Sant
Intellect Bristol in the UK and the Chicago University Press pp184
ISBN 978-184150-371-4

One early April evening at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta a handsome audience of artists and art lovers had the unusual opportunity of attending the world launch of Toni Sant’s new book which comprehensively relates the history of a remarkable American organisation called Franklin − after its famous location at 112 Franklin Street, New York – Furnace, referring to its role as a lively melting pot of avant-garde art since 1976.

Maltese listeners and viewers remember Toni Sant, whom I had the pleasure of introducing to broadcasting in Malta a number of years ago, as a forward-looking creative artist communicating in his − still evident in writing − innovative style of presenting the unknown, be it education, analysis or just fun. Local Eurovision fans also regularly follow his musical expertise.

He has a knack at capturing an audience as he did at the Fine Arts where artist Vince Briffa, head of the Digital Art Department at the university, Sandro Debono, the museum curator, and yours truly were invited by the author to bounce off the various challenging art themes present in the publication to an interactive audience.

Dr Sant, who could be considered as the prime exponent of internet art in Malta, is now director of research at the University of Hull’s School of Arts and New Media in Scarborough in the UK after a number of years studying in the US, where he used to lecture about performance and new media at New York University.

Of course he also lectures in his home country at the University of Malta.

The author takes us on a virtual tour of this amazing arts furnace guided by Martha Wilson, the founder-director who takes pride in her organisation’s mission of making “the world safe for avant-garde art”.

Franklin Furnace seized the opportunity to develop its very existence from a physical gallery cum centre for artists, who were not being supported by existing artistic institutions, to createthe Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art allowing emerging artists to produce major works in New York. It also initiated the Sequential Art for Kids on its tenth birthday.

A number of bizarre circumstances accompanied the Furnace in the next 10 years, including a series of unfortunate institutional mishaps which eventually contributed to its very survival when in 1997 FF launched its website www.franklinfurnace.org with the prime focus on giving access to freedom of expression and a broader audience for emerging artists through new media. Some events in the second decade, however, did bring about the acquisition of FF’s collection of artists’ books – the largest in the US – by the Museum of Modern Art and the enviable presence of Andy Warhol as one of its directors just before he died in 1987.

From its first netcasting season, featuring 10 artists in 1998, to its move to the Brooklyn Academy of Music district in 2004, the Furnace reached a very high point when it was entrusted to digitise and publish on internet records of performances, installations, exhibits and other events produced by the organisation through a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2006. Only two years ago FF launched its online version of the Franklin Furnace database.

The author lists an amazing timeline of high-profile artistic institutions and authorities that, over the years, supported the unique enabling role of this furnace in the world of avant-garde art.

Besides a long conversation with Martha Wilson the author also collects other exponents’ input in the first part of his book. Over three engaging chapters in the second part Toni Sant deals with broadcasting artists’ ideas, the virtually-live role of today’s artists’ interactive messages, as well as the preservation of the frequently elusive avant-garde art.

As a media person myself I am mostly drawn to the debate on broadcasting artists’ ideas. In chapter three the author follows various artists’ successful moves from paper to internet, asserting that this electronic tool is the latest and best medium for an artist. He cites artist Frank Moore who loves the internet as it provides thousands of viewers while counter-balancing with another artist, Phillpot, who laments on cheapness and numbers: these do not necessarily guarantee public access or public interest. Franklin Furnace’s intimacy with its experience of art is seen through its attraction to the masses.

It is difficult to appreciate an artist’s work/s via internet without first having access to his/her electronic artists’ book, which, in simplest terms, could be described as a web-based live performance art project. Toni Sant sums it up: electronic artists’ books, unlike paintings or sculptures in a gallery or museum where they are displayed almost like untouchable holy relics, give the reader or viewer a very open-ended opportunity to interpret meanings from the work.

After all, as the author points out, even Michel Foucault in The Archeology of Knowledge admits that the frontiers of a book are never clean-cut because of references to other books, texts and sentences; it is a “node within a network”. Avant-garde artists believe that if an idea can be kept alive between originator and beholder it has a higher level of interactivity.

Chapter four debates the very “liveness” of virtual art. The author holds that once a performance is saved, recorded or documented “it becomes something other than (live) performance”.

He believes FF has been addressing the paradox of digital live art by questioning and doing it at the same time.

Chapter five stresses the need to preserve the avant-garde through digital cataloguing. Acknowledging the FF’s mission to make event archives access-ible to the public, the author opines that it is artists themselves who should strive to perpetuate the living memory of their works, possibly also by networking, as FF does, in order to survive in a continuously changing environment.

This book is an agent provocateur for any digital art lover or indeed anyone with an artistic message on the internet.

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