Navigating the Avant-Garde with Suzanne Churchill, Linda Kinnahan & Susan Rosenbaum


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So begins the manifesto for a new project on Mina Loy. The brains behind ‘Navigating the Avant-Garde’ — namely Prof. Suzanne Churchill (Davidson College), Prof. Linda Kinnahan, (Duquesne University) and Prof. Susan Rosenbaum (University of Georgia)– are combining rigorous research with an aesthetically pleasing website. The results are pretty inspiring. Opening up Loy’s work in this way takes us out of the archive (which has recently been digitised here) and into a new space. A non-linear approach to a canon of work that allows for exploration and innovation. Spanning Dada, Surrealism, Futurism a user can travel to Paris, Florence and New York as the creators think about mapping in a way that really opens out what digital humanities can do. Jade French and Charlotte Whalen find out more about a project that takes us from the centre out towards the en dehors garde

Hello! First of all, could you tell us about your research interests and how you came to have a focus on the works of Mina Loy?

Suzanne Churchill [SC]: The germ of this project grew out of my long term interests in Mina Loy, modernist poetry and little magazines. I’ve also developed more recent interests in digital humanities and how scholars can use digital tools and platforms for both teaching and research. Digital tools and platforms can transform humanities research, not just in what we can do — for example, computerised textual analysis or mapping — but how we publish our research and interact with our readers. So, borrowing from Craig Mod who’s written about the digital book, I started thinking about not just how we could change our scholarship to publish it digitally but how digital might change scholarship. And it does so in a variety of ways, including: digital scholarship has to be more collaborative, it’s obviously multimedia, it’s often non-hierarchical, and all that relates to the collaborative nature of having to work as equal partners, bringing different skills and training, presenting work in more non-linear ways.

Susan Rosenbaum [SR]: My scholarship centers on twentieth-century American poetry, especially women’s experimental poetry, and on interdisciplinary approaches to literature. I’m especially interested in poetry and the visual arts, so the book I’m just completing — or maybe completed! — is on surrealism, American poetry and the visual arts. It’s titled “Imaginary Museums” and explores poetic collections that work across word and image or in many kinds of media simultaneously. Because of this background I’ve been attracted to the possibilities of a digital platform as a stage to explore artwork and literature that crosses genre and media, work that print can’t do justice to.

I think Loy is a great case study for why theories of the avant-garde come up short. As Suzanne was suggesting, Loy doesn’t neatly fit in to avant-garde movements or conventional histories of the avant-garde, and it’s been exciting to think with Linda and Suzanne about how experimental women artists/writers like Loy make possible a new history and theory of the avant-garde. So I would say for me the collaborative aspect of this project has been exciting and just inspiring.

Linda Kinnahan [LK]: My focus has been on twentieth century American and British poetry across the century, working with both modernist and contemporary writers. I was introduced to Loy in graduate school, in the 80s, and at that time there was relatively little scholarship on her. You know, all of my Loy materials fit into one teeny-tiny little slender folder of several articles. Writing about her was often a matter of tracking down, as you all did too, where she shows up in other people’s work or where she shows up in little magazines. So it was really an interesting time to encounter Loy, and she’s stayed with me since those early years, especially as I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which poetry and visual cultures and media intersect and interact, with particular interest in photography, Loy, and poetry. When invited to work on this project, I was fascinated by the multimedia potential of digital platforms and the capacity for digital platforms to open up ways of presenting work in non-linear ways so that we can more richly understand the intersections and overlaps of the visual and the verbal. Writing about these multiple, often simultaneous and layered intersections is often difficult to undertake in linear ways . I would say that my interest in visual culture drives my enthusiasm about a digital scholarship but also more and more informs my work with Loy.

Modernism as UX Design

Could you say a bit more about how you created your design language? It feels very crisp and modern.

SC: As I’m sure you’re aware, there are ongoing debates about what constitutes digital humanities along with questions such as whether you need to know how to code. A lot of the leading edge scholars in digital humanities are learning how to do different things with the technology, but there’s relatively less interest in and even a relegation to minimalised or feminised status for anybody who’s interested in the work of ‘building pretty websites’. That’s not considered the serious work of the digital humanist.

But I was inspired by John Branch’s ‘Snowfall’. It wis a New York Times multimedia publication about these backwards skiers who do all this crazy stuff. That’s a topic that doesn’t interest me at all, but the story was designed so beautifully that it became immersive, and I read start to finish. That was a really eye-opening moment, suggesting that maybe I don’t like online reading because it’s typically not aesthetically gratifying. Scholarly websites, precisely because of our hierarchies of values, tend to put that design and aesthetic aspect of experience to the bottom rung. The thicker and denser the prose, the more worthy the ideas, right? And so one of our feminist interventions is revaluing style and aesthetics and reclaiming the perspective of feminist, female avant-garde artists and poets like Loy, who certainly didn’t neglect the significance of design, style, or even fashion.

SR: We want the user to choose their path. Mina Loy’s career can’t be neatly slotted into any of the avant-garde movements which she circled around, and we want her own circuitous path to inspire how our users can navigate the website. Users do not need to follow a linear path.

SC: When you start publishing digitally, your work is instantly more user-centric. As scholars, typically it’s ‘I’m interested in this’ and ‘I want to figure out that’ and suddenly, you have to think ‘what do my users want?’ and ‘how are they going to interact to this material?’.

As soon as you start doing user-centric scholarship, you also have to think about design. Questions of the design and organisation of the site, and the page and the menus and the visual hierarchies and integration of visual media come to the forefront. All of these concerns seem to not so much pull away from my research interests in Loy, but point back to her, as the ideal case study for thinking about how Loy scholarship might be transformed in a digital environment. Her peripatetic career just doesn’t fit into one linear trajectory and she doesn’t fit categories so I started thinking about this project and sought a grant for a full year’s sabbatical to explore it and very soon started talking to these brilliant Loy scholars to my right and left because I knew that this would be bigger and I needed their help.

Were you inspired at all by the little magazine in the development of the site?

SC: I think it is an inspiration, now that you mention it and make that connection! The appeal of the little magazine came from the moment I discovered it early in my graduate career. When I pulled the bound volume of Others off the shelf, modernism was opened up to me as a very different constellation of writers, in which Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy were on the same pages with people I’ve never heard of, like Skipwith Cannell and Jeanne D’Orge and all kinds of “others.” I realised that T. S. Eliot was once a scrappy unknown struggling artist, and suddenly I thought — wow I really need to think about my relationship to these so-called great writers and the monumental works they created in a very different way.

It was such an appealing ideal, not to idealise it, but the modernist little magazine represented an experimental, often short-lived, more egalitarian, experimental space. Women often had very leading roles in these magazine and were featured with more prominence than they were in subsequent histories, and I would say the same for African Americans if we look at the rise of an explosion of periodical culture in the twentieth century, the establishment of The CrisisOpportunity. Magazines were a really important vehicle for transforming access to knowledge and culture and visual culture, changing the images that circulated in the popular imagination.

The website also has some literal mapping too, in the form of Linda’s notes on Florence and Loy’s time there. How important is this sense of ‘place’ to the project?

LK: I’ve gone to Florence twice with the express purpose of locating and visiting the places associated with Loy or her network of friends, writers, and innovators. It was just really lovely to map out her locations; there’s something about seeing the textures and light of these places. I know we are now one hundred years beyond her time in Florence, but to walk the hill of Costa San Giorgio still opened up my eyes to the early poems she wrote while living there or soon after. I’ve always, of course, thought of these poems from the 1910s as her ‘Florence poems’ but to really see how much that place is embedded in the poems is illuminating. I’m working on a chapter for the project informed by reading the poems through more direct attention to place. Like Suzanne and Susan, I’m thinking about how mapping and navigating speaks to/through Loy’s poems, particularly as these Italian places become sites for exploring themes that interest her, such as gender dynamics. How do these poems relate to physical places and the socio-political presence in her works? You need to go to Florence!

SC: Of course, there are challenges when it comes to thinking about chronology and Loy; her work doesn’t fit neatly into those frameworks. So we’re thinking about reconceiving the site around geographical locations. Studying her work in terms of places that she visited and we’ve visited in order to fully understand her complex, multifaceted, and peripatetic career. We want to foreground these ideas using images and mapping tools…

SR: We want place, travel, and navigation to be a material way we can unsettle the conventional history of the avant-garde, and a means of mapping and thinking about the en dehors garde. We were noticing that late in her career, Loy still draws on some Futurist and Dadaist techniques; her engagement with the avant-garde isn’t restricted by historical periodisation. She does not follow a linear trajectory. This is also something we hope to discuss in the theorising of the en dehors garde.

A Feminist Strategy

Speaking of the en dehors garde, it seems like a really useful way of thinking about centres and margins — why that phrase and why now?

SC: We were thinking about avant garde theories and why they weren’t accommodating Loy’s work accurately, and I got talking to Nancy, Selleck a dear friend of mine from grad school. She’s an early modern scholar and had a career as a professional ballet dancer with the New York Ballet prior to going into academia. She said to me, ‘I think you need a new term. The avant garde isn’t really working — how about en dehors garde?’. I’d never heard of this term. In ballet, she explained, it means coming from the outside or turning outward.

It seemed so perfect to think about an alternative avant-garde this way — and appropriate that the term would come from an outsider to modernist studies. And from the dance world, which was important to this period in terms of being an area of great modernisation and innovation that influenced the other arts and intrigued Loy as well (who is very interested in Isadora Duncan and modern dance). Once Nancy said ”en dehors garde,” it resonated.

SR: It really did. I was writing about the history of experimental women’s poetry in the U.S. and whether or not the avant-garde was a concept that was really useful. There are writers like Cathy Park Hong who make a really convincing case for getting rid of the terminology altogether because it’s so exclusionary. That’s an important stance (see her essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde” in Lana Turner №7). I think developing this concept of the “en dehors garde” allows us to still engage with the history of the avant-garde and the experiments associated with that history, but to encompass those who were doing something different or who were on the margins of those movements.

LK: This engagement becomes a very powerful feminist strategy. The gender ideologies underlying the very language of the term “avant-garde” have played out in its theorising. When we use en dehors garde, the idea of movement rather than placement (as in “advanced guard”) emerges. The en dehors garde suggests how writers and works move, how they operate and interact with each other, rather than how a writer might claim a position. The concept of movement becomes very important to us as a strategy of undoing — no longer ‘being ahead’, which has such a hierarchical and privileged connotation, but ‘turning’.

SC: We need to think about different paradigms and platforms for accommodating the contributions of other people who are present and part of these movements as they happened, but not in the ways that our current theories account for.

SR: It’s a feminist intervention to come up with your own theory. Because in the past theory itself had been claimed as a masculine endeavour and then we’re in the position of just reacting to the theories that men have already put out there.

How have academic reactions to ‘feminism’ changed or evolved in the last ten years, with the arrival of digital platforms?

LK: I came into modernist studies in the 1980s and early 90s at a real high point for feminist modernist scholarship. To my dismay, after a while, recovery work and other forms of feminist intervention began (in some quarters) to be seen as a little passé — as if we were somehow getting beyond all that gender stuff. I think I could even look back at conference programmes and see ways in which this energy was in danger of being ellided or marginalized. So, for me, it’s been tremendously reassuring to see younger scholars really interested in reinvigorating those feminist conversations and building new ones. To my mind, the critical issues made visible by feminists have never gone away. There was never any way the could have because we never finished that work! So, I think there’s a new energy that’s really wonderful to see.

SR: I do feel like it’s a lot of younger scholars who are boldly claiming that.

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Collaboration and Community

The idea of collaboration seems an important part of the research process . It’s a generous type of scholarship, to share Loy, to allow younger people to identify with her in a very immediate way. How did you develop the collaborative nature of the project?

SR: You know that book ‘Possession’ by A. S. Byatt? I love that book, because it describes a common model of proprietary scholarship, as in, I work on Loy, so she’s “my” poet! I would say all of us are passionate about Loy and other artists and poets we work on, but we aren’t proprietary. The aim of the platform is to democratise access to Loy. I’m all for democratising access to writers and artists, as much as possible, and inviting people in. I detest that proprietary attitude on the part of scholars and critics towards cultural work. Democratising the work of art and integrating it into everyday life is an important part of one strand of the avant-garde.

LK: Absolutely, right now we have a couple of different structural elements planned for the platform that consciously seek to incorporate wider collaborations. We’re developing a type of flash mob to be launched this summer, where we will invite other people to begin generating postings and ideas about the en dehors garde and bringing that spirit of collaboration into the actual development of knowledge. It’s not just our knowledge.

SC: I’m struck by your use of the word “generous” and don’t know if you know Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent work on generous thinking in the humanities and digital humanities. This idea of generous thinking — including using open source platforms and freely sharing everything we develop — is very much part of the avant-garde culture of digital humanities and feminist scholarship. It’s about openly sharing, inviting and to collaborating with people as equal partners — so not treating librarians, IT staff, and students as mere sort of tech support or research assistants but recognising them as equal partners in our intellectual endeavors.

I think this ethos informs our ideas for the flash mob formation of the avant-garde, where we will be inviting students, scholars, artists, poets, enthusiasts to contribute posts in whatever form or genre you would like, and also in the non-hierarchical way we imagine presenting these posts. We’re still talking to Greg Lord, our amazing designer and programmer. What we want is the users to be able to first see all the posts in a random grid: you can then select and check favourites and arrange them in your own formation, so that you’re participating in the project. Users effectively get to assemble their own theories of the avant-garde…so there’s this idea of it being collaborative, participatory, somewhat more ephemeral and not locked into one formation that might involve a certain hierarchy; an ever-chaning theory that is sortable, searchable, and interactive.

SR: And we’re trying to also think about the visual design of that kind of shifting array, so we’ve been talking a lot about what that might look like; hopefully it will be visually stimulating.

SC: Yeah, and aesthetically gratifying. So that, for both creators and readers, the work of scholarship could actually be pleasurable!

LK: — and fun.

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