The Merzweb: Web 2.0 and the 1930s avant garde

May 25th, 2009

While it feels like our online lives are unprecedented, at least from a technological perspective, they’re not, from an avant-garde art perspective. From the 1920s to the 1950s, a sadly neglected artist from Hanover, Kurt Schwitters, derived his own practice that has earned him accolades from being one of the first multimedia artists, to a pioneer of collage and objets trouvés. I’d like to afford him a new title; Patron saint of the Social Web.

Schwitters’ work, born between world wars, was partly a response aiming towards reuniting the fragments of a shattered world. Beginning with paper-based collage works, Schwitters selected and combined elements based on the relationships and associations he percieved between them, before extending this process to sculpture, environments and ultimately whole spaces.

What’s really interesting about his merz practice is how much it echoes how we build content online, and how the spaces we inhabit behave – in many ways, Schwitters was constructing social networks, ad-hoc infrastructure, and content built around association using physical objects. He rejected the idea of ‘completeness’ in favour of a constantly expanding and evolving production process, mirroring our idea of web ‘pages’ – what’s the definitive version of a google page? We live in an environment of dynamic ‘pages’, pages no longer with definitive versions but evolving content which changes over time in response to the associations and taxonomy informing it.

Much as there’s no difference in the structure of two pages showing videos on YouTube, divorcing their arrangement from their content, Schwitters treated his collage surfaces. There were no boundaries or judgments passed on the quality of content; everything, from bodily waste to works of art, we treated equally in the eyes of the merz process. The exterior was a reflection of the structural arrangement of the interior, mediated by his own life and acquisition process. This freedom we have only discovered en masse through the recent evolution of folksonomies and personal, free-association organisational structures that have evolved with the web and modern document management practices. Taxonomy is no longer recieved; it is something we evolve, that changes through its use, reflects the user, and responds to meeting others when it becomes folksonomy.

In many ways, Schwitters’ Merzbau is a physical manifestation of a Facebook homepage – a reflection of the individual, emergent evidence of their influences and activity, and ever changing, albeit on a slower scale. Sadly, the original Merzbau was destroyed in an Allied air-raid on Hanover; a second Merzbau in Norway was destroyed, and his final Merzbarn, in the Lake District, fell into disrepair after his death, sadly as forgotten as Schwitters was in his adopted country.

That what was radically avant-garde and rejected at its time has now become the routine way we read, learn about the world, and document our existence shows what a misunderstood and unexplored medium the web has become. Commentators are already lunging at ‘web 3.0’ without fully grasping the implications of the ‘web 2.0’ shift. Schwitters, while never experiencing any of the parts that have enabled global adoption of his practices, would have understood where we’re headed; that when we talk about the ‘web’, we’re exploring all our content in terms of relationships of the signified, rather than concrete destinations and fixed, dependable content. Our global brain is as shifting, fickle and malleable as the human mind itself.

While Isadore of Seville is mooted as the patron saint of the internet (based on completeness and determistic processes), let us respect Kurt Schwitters as the patron saint of the web – completeness an unnatainable (and negative) goal.

Some insightful commentary on this presentation are on The Art of Fiction.

Contact Dave regarding this article.