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Talk: "Interfunktionen" and "Avalanche" discussed at MoMA panel

Interfunktionen and Avalanche at the Modern

After the sardine lecture at Storefront (see last post), there was more chat about the legendary little magazines of the 1970s. December 10th the Museum of Modern Art convened called “Experimental Magazines and the International Avant-Gardes, 1945–1975." The panel discussion, said moderator David Little, coincides with the “Eye on Europe” show and the “American Fantastica” exhibition. So it may have. But the weight of the panel was ‘70s. Edward Sullivan seemed misplaced speaking generally about the landscape of Latin American modernist journals, so I am going to ignore his remarks. The stars of the panel for me were Benjamin Buchloh speaking on the avant garde German publication Interfunktionen, and Willoughby Sharp and Liza Bear, co-editors of Avalanche, the NYC magazine of new art published in the early 1970s.


Buchloh said that the motive of Interfunktionen, for which he worked for as a co-editor in the 1970s was to be independent of commercial culture, just like Avalanche, the other journal spotlighted in the panel that night.

In NYC Avalanche had Artforum to push against. In Germany, Buchloh said, there was no real magazine culture. Interfunktionen was started by Friedrich (Fritz) Heubach after a march in 1968 “on the occasion of Documenta,” when Joseph Beuys, Wolf Vostell and others went to protest the closedness of the exhibition. Heubach was inspired by Vostell’s magazine Decollage. Vostell, said Buchloh, “was occupying a position halfway between Fluxus and Affichisme” (e.g., Mimmo Rotella, et al). Heubach “was a Beuys disciple,” and the sale of Beuys editions was a key means of support for Interfunktionen. Buchloh of course “was a Beuys-o-phobe from the very beginning,” nor did he care for Vostell. Buchloh liked rather Daniel Buren and especially Marcel Broedthaers.

He hooked up with Michael Aupitz, training as an anthropologist in Paris, who was familiar with structuralist and post-structuralist theory. They scored a Roman Jakobson essay on art and literature for Interfunktionen. Buchloh embraced the structuralist/post-structuralist agenda during the early '70s, which aimed he said at the transformation of visual arts practice into a linguistic practice, to turn objects into texts. He saw conceptual art as the only legitimate strategy of the late 1960s. With the idea of distribution of art outside the market -- a “fantasy” of the 1970s -- and also popular dissemination of art ideas – “one of the great delusions of the moment of conceptualism” – he believed that “making a magazine constructed a new space,” like an alternative space. The distribution form of the artwork could be transformed by a magazine.

Despite his clear understanding of the status of his 1970s undertakings, Buchloh spoke like a shamed child. He was oddly mocking of the work of his younger years, referring to it as driven by “delusions.” This puzzled me. I am told that his students are used to this.

Susan Sontag's essay “Against Interpretation” led Interfunktionen to “eliminate the mediator” between artist and public. To be a critic or a historian then was to engage in a “despicable activity.” Conceptual art claimed a new immediacy with no need for secondary texts. Interfunktionen did not publish commentary or critical writing.

Interfunktionen included Anselm Kiefer's “Occupations” series of photographs in which he is seen performing “some kind of gesture” which resembles a Nazi salute. Buchloh describes his decision to run this as a mistake; it caused a great uproar. The next Interfunktionen on artists and architecture then did not come out. Galleries withdrew their advertising support. Broedthaers withdrew his essays. Disaster ensued. Exit Interfunktionen.


With his signature hat, long hair and white beard, Willoughby Sharp looks like a hipster Santa Claus. His once booming voice has been moderated by recent illness into a driving rasp. He began his presentation with great deliberation and spoke from a prepared script. Avalanche was published first in October of 1970.

The 500 pound gorilla of the NYC art critical scene in the 1970s, Artforum was the very model of a controlling critical discourse, or rather multiple contending streams of it. Many of its texts were written by artists, notably Robert Morris and Robert Smithson. The Avalanche idea was to get information “straight from the artists.” The magazine presented carefully prepared interviews with leading avant garde artists speaking about their work.

Buchloh said during questions the Avalanche was very open to Europe, more so than Artforum. Yves Klein was the only European artist to make it onto an Artforum cover during the 1970s. The first issue of Avalanche was given over to Joseph Beuys. It was “an attempt to internationalize contemporaneity,” said Buchloh.

Sharp spent years in Europe. In 1958, he explained, he “backed and befriended Yves Klein,” a meeting he says changed his orientation towards art. For the next ten years he traveled extensively in Europe, and married a woman from Germany. He hooked up with a gallerist in Düsseldorf, and through him met Beuys and the Zero group – Piene, Mack and Uecke. Beuys and the Zero Group “introduced me to executing performative actions.” In 1968 he curated "System Sculpture and Environmental Spaces" for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The horrific massacre of students there marred the exhibition he had been preparing for many years.

He visited Marcel Duchamp, whom he regarded as “a fountainhead of kineticism.” He formed a close association with the dealer Paul Maenz, and they began to publish books and multiples. He learned principles of Bauhaus Max Bill-style design from him.

Liza Bear had worked on a magazine called Circuits in London. She began by translating from the French, and continued working with them. Trained in philosophy, Bear practiced activism since high school and was steeped in the subculture of radical politics in London. She moved to NYC, fell in with Willoughby and started working with him to produce Avalanche.

Bear mentioned the other magazines contemporary with Avalanche,like Art-Rite, File and Interview. She told me afterwards she thought AA Bronson of File should have been on the panel. (Bronson today is the director of the Printed Matter artists bookstore.)

“About the period here…”

David Little, MoMA’s director of adult education, moderated after the prepared statements, and tried to make room for South America. But Edward Sullivan just didn’t fit. As Buchloh pointed out, the magazine culture of modernism was invisible in the late '60s. Afterwards Liza told me that she and Willoughby had in fact looked at Dada publications. At that point, they must have been looking at originals, since the reprint trend only got rolling in the '70s.

Buchloh asked Sharp how Avalanche related to Fluxus. “It seemed,” he said, “as if you separated yourself from this movement that had been so prominent in Soho during this period.” Sharp replied that he and Bear met with Yoko Ono and John Lennon. They wanted Avalanche to do an issue with Yoko. The two editors went up to their hotel room and looked at the stuff. Finally they refused. (In a bit of theatrical business that made me sorry MoMA does not also videotape their panels, Liza handed Willoughby a copy of the letter refusing Yoko and John. He read it silently.) “They couldn't have been getting that many refusals at that point,” he said.

Buchloh marshaled a final statement of powerful bleakness. He reiterated his equation of the alternative space and the little magazine, but claimed that magazines today are “erased from the historical picture.” Now “there is no space of contestation because everything is instantly absorbed” in a “transformation of social organization that does not allow a counterculture.” He believes that cultural practice today cannot have a political effect. “I contribute to academic knowledge,” said Buchloh. Criticism today is either affirmative or it does not exist. Critics do not affect curators or the market. In the 1960s you believed that criticism was independent like the curatorial, he said. The three realms of the artworld – the market, the museum, the university – operated together. That’s been completely reshuffled. The market does not allow contestation of its hegemony. You take a stand but you don’t expect it to have an effect.

Of course I don’t believe that. One has only to browse the latest issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest online (a paper or “dead” issue is coming soon) to see how artists involved in the social “movement of movements,” artists committed to making political culture, are responding to contemporary turns of events and popular opportunities.

I cannot see at this moment how Buchloh can be so anti-interventionist. The winds are rising all around us. As an artist, if you have no interest in the “movement of movements,” social forums and popular assemblies, then you can opt for “worldchanging.” If these two progressive impulses are pointless and ineffectual, then we are doomed. To hold this position I believe is to confuse fatigue with wisdom. On the other hand, it is the best kind of academic career counsel. Fuck around with these movements, the minions of corporate capital may blackball you.

From the panel at MoMA to the barricadistas

After the MoMA panel, I rushed down to 16 Beaver Street to catch just the tail end of a first-hand monologue account of the revolutionary street fighting in the Mexican city of Oaxaca in which NYC anarchist journalist Brad Will was killed in late October. The speaker, Calamity, told of street fighting, barricades, death squads, disappearances, police shootings on the university campus. Her group was promoting international solidarity with the popular assemblies in Mexico. These are extra-governmental. Collectives and groups organized and convened with the popular assembly – the APPO – which is “totally horizontal” and run on a consensus basis. Daily life during this time was “tense, fun, beautiful” in a routine of building and holding barricades, then hiding out with “one bag of rice and one pack of cigarettes,” and worrying how to get food. Isn’t this revolutionary tourism? Sure. It’s an honorable American tradition. Ben Morea was at the talk, the kingpin of the '60s Lower East Side anarchist group Motherfuckers. “If I was 20 years younger, I'd get me a plane ticket right now.”, the NYC group formed after the October shooting death of the IndyMedia reporter and NYC activist, takes donations and sells photographs for support. I bought the one of a crate of Coca-Cola bottles fitted out as Molotov cocktails.

Yes and cyberspace is not really a space

"The three realms of the artworld – the market, the museum, the university – operated together. That’s been completely reshuffled. The market does not allow contestation of its hegemony. You take a stand but you don’t expect it to have an effect."

Of course cyberspace doesn't exist or is only a marketing instrument. Any attack on the market is almost pointless. Unless you uncouple art from money. The trouble is that the type of populist art that might make that possible is caught up in doing social services. Essentially the artist is valued as creating a commodity in the market. The value is in the object not the ideas within the object. Social art is funded by social service agencies and tends to satisfy a social program. If you don't function in either of those realms you barely exist as an artist.
If there was ever a time for a critic and a theorist to step up to the plate and start proposing to enlarge this claustrophobic arena of art it is now.