Notes from the Avant-Garde: 5 Artists Pushing Today Into Tomorrow


To a hummingbird you look like a statue. Buzzing past, their wings flapping in a blur of motion, you appear about as lively as stone. Avant-garde artists move through the art world, pretty much the same way. It’s like they live in the near-future instead of the frozen moment of the present with the rest of us.

150 years ago, the first avant-garde exhibition took place in Paris on May 17, 1863. Over the three centuries of its lifetime, the role of the avant-garde matured dramatically. In recent decades, it was considered elitist. It’s been labeled passé, believed to be unnecessary. It’s been declared dead numerous times. Yet, the avant-garde keeps hovering and darting forward ahead of the art world, unfazed by the rumors of its demise.

Here are 5 avant-garde artists/art collectives pushing today into tomorrow.

Remember this name.


She makes fashion-art for the body. She’s one of the most visually arresting artists working today. And she just graduated from fashion school. Brandishing the fire–dripping torch of youth to light her way, Manon Kundig stomped off into uncharted woods, inspired by the beauty of the bowerbird that makes its nest there.

In an interview with Triangulation Blog, Manon Kundig said of her inspiration, “It gave me so much freedom. I could act like a bird and make a collection where everything is possible and imaginable. The aesthetic of the bird has no hierarchy. Rubbish can be beauty. A cocktail. The bird picks whatever is in his surrounding.”

Female bowerbirds are drab. So like peacocks, male bowerbirds use colorful sexual displays to attract females. Not gifted with the peacock’s rainbow plumage, male bowerbirds are color-mad collectors. They’re Nature’s version of a Tumblr-obsessed curator. Male bowerbirds erect a ground-based, walled structure for their nest. They decorate it with whatever catches their eye. Truly… whatever.

A bowerbird nest is typically a tapestry of color and textures and shapes all formed into a lush carpet of arranged baubles, odds, ends, berries and trash the bird collected. Using the display to entice females, the future of their species depends on the beauty the male creates.

Here’s Manon Kundig’s Spring ’13 Bowerbird men’s collection:


Just like the bowerbird searching the forest, Manon Kundig’s curiosity wings through the concrete jungle, down into the streets and past the cars of her immigrant Antwerp neighborhood. Sometimes, she picks from the beauty she finds on the sidewalk. Other times, an image on her laptop catches her eye and she plucks from her digital environment.


Speaking with Triangulation Blog, Manon Kundig explained how she found the inspiration for the headscarves her male models wear, “My online research is clearly not on fashionable sides. It is the ‘real’ aspect that fascinates me. I actually ‘stole’ the idea from a silk fetish thing going on Flickr. It is damn serious. There is a fetish for almost everything…  I wanted no body or physical aspect to be seen. No human. A pile of information for the eyes.”


For her, fashion isn’t a calculated use of trend but more like visual play. It’s entirely natural for her to combine underground fetish imagery with the mating ritual of a rainforest bird. She gathers whatever ignites her passion and assembles it all into color-dense, richly layered patterns perfect for visual seduction.

Her intelligence, her willingness to steal and recombine, her playful desire to sumptuously layer pattern atop pattern to create something totally new and visually striking, pushes her work into the avant-garde. Without her sense of fun it could easily become a vomited mess. Instead, it’s like she decorates bodies with a rainforest.


If you’re a guy, you might be thinking, “There’s no way, I’d wear anything like that.” That’s cool. But trust me… men of the future will look more like this and less like you.

Not limited to fashion, Manon Kundig also creates digital prints. Her Net-art is another way for her to combine humor with her love of color, texture and sexual imagery to create vibrant patterns and vivid mosaics.


This one’s my favorite…

…And not because it’s a penis-shaped potato. I like how she uses a laugh to remind us our bodies are just as ridiculous and beautiful as a duck-billed platypus. And I love how Manon Kundig fully enjoys our overlooked animal nature.

Here’s Manon Kundig’s 2013 Spring runway show:


There’s an artist couple whose work constantly asks the audience: “What the hell do you care about?” They’re art-pranksters. Shameless provocateurs. They’re best known for outrageous crimes perpetrated against the art world. These days, artists don’t really publish manifestos. It’s good there are still art-radicals like Eva & Franco to force us into a passionate conversation about social values.


Years ago, they introduced the world to Serbian artist, Darko Maver. He took photos of gory re-enactments of murder victims staged in empty houses, hotels and street scenes as social commentary. The reclusive artist became world-famous. His work was included in the 48th Venice Biennale. At the height of his fame, he died in a Kosovoan prison. But this wasn’t the end of Darko Maver because…

…Eva and Franco invented Darko Maver. He was an elaborate prank. They conned the art world insiders like a bunch of naïve fairground suckers. The photos of the gruesome figures everyone thought were wax mannequins were real photos of real victims of real atrocities from the former Yugoslavia. It was Eva and Franco’s laughing indictment of how the media would rather focus on art pieces than reality.

Eva & Franco love to touch the art world… wherever they think it’ll hurt.

For their most infamous project, they visited museums and galleries all around the world and stole bits and pieces from famous works by artists such as Kandinsky, Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Beuys, Koons and Warhol. For two years, they stole from great masterpieces. Eventually, they assembled it together and exhibited their work as a new “masterpiece.” It’s currently on display in a gallery in London.

Here’s a video of one of their heists:
[vimeo 44168949 w=584 h=390]

Stolen Pieces from Eva and Franco Mattes on Vimeo.

Eva and Franco’s work functions like a funhouse mirror for us to gaze at ourselves.

One of Eva & Franco’s best works is their video, “No Fun.” They picked a website where users surf web-cam feeds, called Riffing on the suicidal game of Russian roulette, Eva and Franco loaded the “chamber” of their webcam with a suicide victim. Unlucky strangers looking to chat were confronted by a hanged man. They filmed the strangers’ reactions. It’s a smorgasbord of humanity on display. At around seven minutes in, it sure looks like the guy wearing only a bathrobe starts masturbating to the swinging “dead man.”

Here’s the video:
[vimeo 11467722 w=584 h=390]

No Fun from Eva and Franco Mattes on Vimeo.

In their recent, “Emily’s Video” project, Eva & Franco explored our tendency to be drawn to, and yet quickly grow immune to, whatever shocks us. They edited together the most horrible imagery they could find, uploaded it, and asked strangers to record themselves watching it. Some viewed it alone, others watched in groups.

Here are some reactions:

Eva & Franco grasp how perception is our key to reality. They leverage our social values against us. They use perception to unlock our heads and then show us our reality-making machinery. Pranksters and provocateurs of the avant-garde, they confront the audience. In response, we’re forced to stumble and trip into the future.

For more on Eva & Franco:


Using the more traditional medium of paint, an Armenian artist, living and working in New York, asks the same questions of who we are today- but he takes an enthusiastically opposite approach.


His work teases out technology’s influence as he wonders who we’re becoming. Tsitoghdzyan’s spotlights the beauty he finds in our modern nature and offers playful insights without relying on the nasty sting of shock. Instead, he creates familiar identification with his subjects and then twists.

Digitally fractured across modern life, sometimes it seems like we’re all like murals painted on brick walls, made of lots of little pieces that somehow form a coherent picture of our lives. Tsitoghdzyan’s series of paintings, “Sectionals,” offers some rather beautiful schizophrenic renderings of such modern persons.

“Self Portrait” (2009)

“Untitled” (2011)

Some artists see how we’re intimidated by technology’s constant advances. Tsgitzyhan recognizes how we still enjoy simpler, more classical views of the world. The Old Masters’ tricks still work on us. In his “Millennium” series, Tsitoghdzyan rendered his subjects in a classical treatment, borrowing from the ways of the Old Masters. Then he tossed in modern items like iPods and smartphones for conflict.

“Millennium” (2010)

Borrowing Caravaggio-inspired lighting for his work, “Connection,” he focused on an infant using a cellphone. You might smile. Yet, there’s a bittersweet edge. Despite the pleasing classical feel, our fancy techno-wonders somehow diminish the subject’s grand humanity. We don’t measure up against the classics. We look tragically silly compared to the mothers, infants, kings and queens of olde.

“Connection” (2011)

Tsitoghdzyan’s most recent paintings, from his “Mirror” series, feature women with hands before their faces. The oil paintings suggest our self-created avatars, those uncontrollable social identities we use in our modern world.

“White Mirror” (2013)

Her hands try to obscure her real world face. But her anonymity is already gone. These paintings are beautifully subtle portraits of our digital reality. Tsitoghdzyan’s techniques may not be avant-garde, but his work clearly is. His art speaks to right now, as it leans into the near-future.

“Mirror II” (2013)

To see more of his artwork visit:

Like the previously mentioned artists, this art collective relies on humor to sweeten the truth of its message. They’re philosophers of art. They often lecture on subjects such as data retention, information-sharing and the corporate “branding” of our world. They’re known for their insights into the evolution of our shared values.


A design studio and art collective based in Amsterdam, Metahaven is arranged around Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk and Gon Zifroni, contemporary artists who think globally and act digitally.

Their primary focus is media-based graphic design. Motivated by their avant-garde principles, the freshness of their work arrests your attention for a moment. And yet, their style never compromises any of their deeper messages.

Consider this cover design. Dick Cheney split into a color-shifted image that subtly suggests his darker, distorted underlying nature. The subtext teases the image.

Supporters of the open-source protocol and philosophy of Wikileaks, they’ve created items for fund-raising efforts for the legally embattled site. They made these Wikileaks scarves. You’ll notice they’re… transparent. 

You’ll also notice their Wikileaks t-shirt is tastefully… non-transparent.

Speaking in an interview with That New Design Smell, Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven expressed an interesting assessment of the function of critical design, ”Intuition plays an important role in everything aesthetic and beautiful. As well as in everything political. The most important things in design are decided in a split second. Without any justification. And the crucial point is to talk about that moment; to talk about the moment when you decided ‘it should be like this’. If someone brings up “they feel like it” as a justification for design, of course, that’s uninteresting. But if intuition tells you what needs to be what, that’s interesting. Because it refers back to the capacity of designers to observe. They observe a certain reality around them, a certain state of things around them, and at some point, they think: this is the best expression. That moment is important for design.”

Interviewed by Eye Magazine, Daniel van der Velden discussed Metahaven’s visual style, ”If you hammer too much it becomes too much like noise, and if it becomes too poetic you lose the tension of the density of ideas.”

This is the balance they strike so well, as they find fresh ways to disturb, while also offering a valid reason to startle the audience. It’s the social function of any avant-garde artist. They give us beneficial shocks to our system.

For more about Metahaven visit:


Lastly, a young artist who’s a crazy-talented multi-hyphenate: a graphic-designer/rapper/net-artist. He rhymes like Drake on Thorazine, has the eyes of a video nerd, spits the vocab of swag, but laughs as he finds his place in this world.


Back in 2011, Yung Jake broke on the art scene with his video, “Datamosh.”

If you don’t hang out with graphic artists, “datamoshing” is a compression technique that warps and distorts an image stream’s playback. Squeezing this visual trick for all its juice, Yung Jake created a video you couldn’t just watch once. He and his creative team, fellow CalArts graduates, Vince McKelvie, Max Barabria, and Temra Pavlovic, combined the visual play of Net-art with auto-tuned rhymes and Yung Jake’s witty, laid-back couplets.

Here’s the video:[youtube]
After the video grabbed viral attention, Yung Jake went back to the lab and created a response video called, “e.m-bed-de/d.”

It’s about what comes next after an artist creates an Internet sensation. The video focuses on a computer screen as windows and tabs keep popping. Stuck onscreen, Yung Jake gets embedded in different websites and on social media sites. At some point, Justin Bieber tweets about him (Apparently, this happened).

It’s a catchy song about our ever-increasing love of media exposure. Notorious B.I.G. rhymed that he wanted to “blow up like the World Trade.” Yung Jake humblebrags about how he wants to “get embedded.” They’re such opposite metaphors for popularity. One lights up the real world with smoke and fire. The other burns across the net at light-speed, pushed by electrons. One goes up and the other goes in.

Hip-hop isn’t known for its avant-garde. Luckily, there’s Yung Jake. He’s the future-shift of hip-hop.

Here’s the video:[youtube]
Speaking with the Creator’s Project blog, Yung Jake described his artwork, “Net-art is a scene just like rap or memes or punk. It’s something that you are either interested [in] or not. I foresee it becoming much bigger in the future…”

If you’re interested in the future… follow the avant-garde, they always get there first. 

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