Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Agent Provacateurs and the Semiotics of the Avant Garde

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Agent Provacateurs and the Semiotics of the Avant Garde

By Melanie Janisse


I was just looking over the Scream Festival’s itinerary from this year’s festivities. Enthralled by the Agent Provocateur theme, I was interested in understanding it in the context of this festival. I was grateful to discover this description:

For one glorious week the Scream Literary Festival will celebrate the pranksters and radicals of the literary world, the agents provocateurs who challenge, entertain and frustrate readers — and ultimately redeem literature.

Ah. It seems that we are discussing the outsiders, tricksters and coyotes that negotiate the spectacle from the craggy path cliff side, who come out of the shadows on occasion to shake things up a bit, misbehave, rant and present us with their unique and razor-sharp works. I must admit that these shape shifters are what keep me interested in things, and so, I make my plans to attend some of the events.


The Arts and Letters Club is just beginning to fill up. Dani Couture, who is at the registration desk, lets me know that entry to the event is half price if I come with a poem, and so with a little time to kill, I head across the street to a restaurant for dinner and some quick-draw poem making. With my recent trip to Brussels and Paris on my mind, I pen a fast poem about some of my impressions of my journey while eating grilled calamari.

So, poem in hand, I head back to the registration desk. I find out that the poems collected from the evening will be made into a chapbook that will be available at other Scream events. The Arts and Letters Club is strange and impressive. Its neo-gothic splendor is not lost on me as I take and empty seat near the back. A smattering of people are already sitting along the giant communal dining tables like a scene out of Sherlock Holmes, or maybe even Hitchcock. The room is nearly Masonic with its strange grotesques and hearths, and I am nestled into its volume like a bee, a bat, a badger.

I stole David Antin’s seat. I didn’t mean to, as at the moment he was standing with some others at the table in front of me.

When he went up, he began one of his in the moment poem/lectures, and it wandered and went in and out of subjects. At one point he spoke about the neo-gothic structure we were sitting in, and how for some reason, we revisit these types of structures for "important" events. They signify for us something should be taken seriously.

As I was sitting there listening, I remember a friend asking me if I could enjoy Hong Kong or Japan as opposed to constantly revering the past by loving Europe, Medieval or Gothic structures. The Art Deco or Art Nouveau of Paris.

On a similar note, on my trip to Paris, my companion pointed out that Europe (as an architectural notion) stopped with the steel of the Victorian train structures, or more famously with the erection of the Eiffel Tower. He felt that this was where America began, with the steel of these trestles. For him, the Twin Towers marked the end of America in terms of Architecture, and the beginning of Japan, Hong Kong, Dubai. Much like Antin, he recognized that our architectural structures mean something to us culturally; they signify and therefore shape our ideas and perceptions.

The Eiffel Tower


While I now think that discussion of the avant garde brings up intense and problematic discourse, I am glad that this year the Scream took it on. Labels as such are tricky, especially labels that are ever shifting and ephemeric. At this juncture, is the avant garde a movement defined in history, is it meant to define a type of artistic approach? Does it speak of a setting of intention that puts an individual or artistic practice in a theoretical or conceptual place in time and space? What is this? What is this vast road that we are looking at?

“The future ... will find us all by itself ...I want to occupy the present.” – David Antin, from “What it means to be avant-garde”

The now. What is it? Is it something that we have forgotten about largely? I find myself a lover of the past more than a looker towards the future, but I m not sure it makes much of a difference which way you cast your thoughts, either conjecture takes away the now from us. So, Antin is essentially asserting that the most provocative thing we can do as artists, the most avant garde action, is to stay here in our actual moments, to hold the immediate space of our perceptions. That seems revolutionary, a bit intimidating even. Is the avant garde an anarchic, nameless now? If so, how does one to this? Do we bother questioning the cultural and social influences that we were raised with? Do we bother to consider the future from a social perspective, an environmental perspective? Do we bother worrying about what is going to happen? Should we spend any time forgiving the past, enjoying our memories?

Or, should we live as Antin suggests in the chaotic and undefined moments of now, and now, and now? I have an old friend that suggested to me that a way to find happiness is to attempt in each moment to do the very next right thing. While I am terrible at this in practice, I respect the intention of this statement. Maybe living rightly (or wrongly) in our moments simply sends a signpost out to the future to find us based on these present thoughts. Certainly this is an idea that follows itself back to Vedic thought, Buddhism, and other traditions.

Steve McCaffery in the Arts and Letters Club

Steve McCaffery (of the legendary Four Horsemen) is the second act of the evening. He gives synergistic reading of two works and achieves this by "reading" over a recording of himself. His is sound noise poetry that breaks through semiotics, language as structure, and emerges to sound as emotive expression. In the great room of the Arts and Letters Club, I am suddenly at a séance, a witchery, as he recites. I am a member of a private sect, and McCaffery is our strange and eloquent host. He is purging daemons, speaking in tongues, ranting and whispering in secret languages. It is an avant-garde freak out. He certainly astounds and continues to force the audience into questions about poems, sound and expression. It was decadent and beautiful. I looked up at the grotesque above my head frequently and wondered if it was about to animate to the incantations.

I left the night feeling like a mason. A witch. I left like funny little Elk with a very tall hat, but not before I had a quick chat with Antin in the bar and got him to sign my copy of his avant-garde meanderings. It turns out his wife is represented in a gallery in Brussels. Odd that. The Scream has begun again.

The author in Paris

Photo of Steve McCaffery by Dani Couture. Photos of Eiffel Tower by Melanie Janisse.

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

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