copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Extensions of the avant-garde: David Gatten’s Secret History of the Dividing Line

by Patrick Faubert

Contemporary avant-garde art presents a paradox. For decades now, scholars have declared the end of the avant-garde, arguing the movement has been lost to an irreversible crisis that has stripped away the force of its aesthetic and ideological program, and silenced any resonance on which contemporary artists might draw. Yet, many artists, as well as critics, continue to engage the avant-garde as a meaningful artistic practice, finding in its push for the continued progression of art a means of negotiating their own practices. If the movement remains vibrant among artists then, then, how are we to understand well theorized arguments proclaiming the avant-garde’s death? Indeed, if our postmodern moment has rendered the anti-traditional aesthetics of the avant-garde, which form its critical ethos, as merely another artistic style, is it possible for the avant-garde to hold any weight as a continuing cultural movement? And if artists embed their work within the ethos of the avant-garde, can they hope to solicit the forms of aesthetic and political intervention held paramount by that movement? Such questions are, of course, limited. The term avant-garde is now widely used without recourse to its historical meaning, and many artists and critics identify work as avant-garde as a straightforward means of citing innovation and progression rather than a political ideal. But these questions remain valid both because the term avant-garde continues to carry aesthetic and political designations, and because the value of the avant-garde, its history, and continued influence, are still being worked out.  

To assess the extensions of the avant-garde into contemporary art is an undertaking too broad for this essay, and one already undertaken by other scholars. My modest focus here is the possible relationship between the historical avant-garde, its death, and North American avant-garde cinema, a significant movement in filmmaking that has been developing in scope and size for nearly a century.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Of course, to speak of this cinema as “avant-garde” already risks a loose employment of the term. Avant-garde cinema is broad and encompasses numerous types of filmmaking. Its filmmakers also often identify with genres and artistic programs (e.g. structural film) that more precisely describe their work than does the broad heading “avant-garde.” But the breadth of this cinema notwithstanding, it remains possible, and reasonable, to locate within a large number of its works a set of frequently emerging ambitions. These include an interest in pushing beyond traditional forms of filmmaking, developing new and relevant forms of cinematic communication, and liberating cinema from deterministic forms of mainstream entertainment. Such ambitions share much in common with the historical avant-garde, especially an impulse to reject notions of artistic tradition and to seek aesthetic programs capable of initiating artistic and social change. But in light of the fate of the avant-garde, any intersection between this cinema and the historical movement is undermined by questions over the continued efficacy of avant-garde art. That is, if the avant-garde is dead, what value might there be in filmmakers and critics seeking to recuperate its critical practice?

This question is brought to the fore in an ongoing series of films, titled Secret History of the Dividing Line, A True Account in Nine Parts, by the U.S. filmmaker David Gatten. This series focuses on events in the life of William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia, a lesser known figure in U.S. colonial history but one who played an important role in both the settlement of Virginia and in the formation of the Library of Congress. In different ways, the films in this series investigate the intersections between Byrd’s life and larger histories of the United States, as well larger processes of writing and disseminating historical knowledge. Scott MacDonald, who has written extensively on avant-garde and experimental cinema, refers to these films as complex reflections on the production of historical knowledge and on the cultures who produce it.[2] These films are doubly interesting, as MacDonald also notes, for how they reflect on the aesthetics of avant-garde cinema and use their formal construction to allude to the capacities of avant-garde film to engage with issues of history.[3]

To my knowledge, Gatten has not expressed an explicit intention to connect his film to the historical avant-garde. It is also not my intention to propose this as an explicit critical strategy in his filmmaking practice. Yet, through their formal investigations of historical inquiry, I would argue the Secret History films can be read as a pointed response to the continued potential of a critical practice explored by the avant-garde over the past two centuries. In particular, the manner in which these films visibly intertwine aesthetics and processes of historical understanding connects them to the interest of the avant-garde in critiquing history as a means of further critiquing social organization. Fiercely anti-historical, the avant-garde also has envisioned itself as anti-traditional, invested in an aesthetic program it hoped would destroy the influence of the past and usher in a new, ideal society. But this striving for destruction and rejuvenation is an area in which the avant-garde was effectively silenced by changing understandings of artistic tradition and history by the latter decades of the twentieth century. In the wake of this silencing, the Secret History films take up the impulse of that movement to resist history. Importantly, however, these films open that impulse to new and contemporary contexts, seeking not resuscitate history but pointing to a path on which it might find the means to continue to develop and flourish.

My focus here is on this process’ manifestation in one film, Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002), which focuses on William Byrd II’s involvement in an eighteenth-century, government-sanctioned survey-expedition to establish the border between Virginia and North Carolina. More specifically, this film deals with Byrd’s two accounts of that expedition: his official account, The Official History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina,and his satiric personal account, Secret History of the Line.[4] Through the use of several unconventional formal devices—tearing of the film, optical printing, and making visible processes of editing—the film invests these accounts in a larger narrative of the settlement of the United States. In doing so, it manipulates them to reveal their inconsistencies and to elicit a reading of them that undermines that larger narrative. In this way, the film also shifts its focus from history, broadly conceived, to historiography, the writing of history, and within that shift Gatten reveals a potential reconfiguration of the anti-historical program of the avant-garde. Indeed, in using formal devices and historical accounts to critique history, he evokes the program of the avant-garde, both illustrating its distance from that movement, while implicitly evoking its continued relevance to contemporary artistic production.

What follows here is my reading of Secret History of the Dividing Line as a negotiation of the continued influence of the avant-garde on contemporary artistic production. My analysis is limited to one central concern of the avant-garde, and is not meant to limit how we should read that movement or Gatten’s film. I therefore proceed in two parts. First, I examine an ideological underpinning of the avant-garde, its manifestation as an aesthetic strategy, and the reasons it has been deemed lost to history. Second, I offer a close reading of Secret History of the Dividing Line, suggesting how the film can be read as engaging this underpinning and its aesthetic manifestation, as well as an exercise in working through its crisis.

The historical avant-garde

It is difficult to offer a precise history or definition of the avant-garde. The term itself has origins in political thought, and has been applied within the arts since the early nineteenth century, intended to identify art that was, as Richard Schechner states, both “new and opposed to prevailing values.”[5] The term “avant-garde” since then, particularly following its crystallization as an ideological force in the late nineteenth century, has been used to speak a range of artistic schools and styles (Futurism, dada, surrealism, etc.). As a result, to identify for the avant-garde a strict set of subjects and techniques, a framework through which all of its applications can be accounted for, is to risk an ahistorical definition, to risk ignoring the historical relativism of the those various schools and styles, and to miss the rich contradictions and nuances that they each add to how we understand the avant-garde in general. In the more precise context of North American filmmaking, to speak of the avant-garde raises additional difficulties—for the application of the term ranges from designating forms of cinematic modernism and political subversion, to a functioning as a loosely employed synonym for the broad category “experimental” cinema.

Here I do not wish to outline the history of the avant-garde but rather to explore its continued presence in artistic production. I am less concerned with slippage in the application of the term than with its critical ethos. Speaking to problems inherent in defining the term, Paul Mann reminds us that definition is often a means of generating allies, an observance that extends to the classification of various artistic practices as avant-garde.[6] Indeed, though the application of the term does not reveal a singular program to which artists adhere, it does designate a set of concerns informing, and to an extent integrating, the output of various literary and artistic schools. Therefore, while a singular history of the avant-garde remains problematic, the continued application of the term exposes the possibility of reading a mutual critical and aesthetic approach underlying many formations of the avant-garde as a broad movement in the arts.

What is of interest here is a particular aspect of that approach: the notion that a rejection of tradition, and subsequently of history, leads to social progress.[7] That the avant-garde would be opposed to history and tradition is unsurprising given its close affinity to and inversion of modernism. Whereas modernism connected aesthetic innovation with a sense of progress and historical awareness, the avant-garde strove for an aesthetic program that was fiercely anti-historical and anti-traditional. This strategy most likely owes to the emergence of the avant-garde in political thought. Andreas Huyssen, reflecting on the development of the avant-garde, notes that by the early nineteenth century, following the theorizing of the avant-garde by French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon, the artistic avant-garde had been inextricably bound with the notion of social progress.[8] As it developed through the nineteenth century, the artistic avant-garde was subsequently influenced by contemporaneous cultural movements of Anarchism and Marxism, and crystallized as a political, anti-traditional, and anti-elitist movement, positioned in sharp opposition to the established state.[9] Though different artists would give such opposition different forms and targets, a broad focus would emerge across the avant-garde in the form of an assault on tradition. In his key definition of the avant-garde in 1939, Clement Greenberg insists that the movement was made possible only by the perception that our social order is historically structured.[10] The avant-garde further takes aim at that structure and order by seeking to destroy its legitimacy and influence; the destruction of the past is meant to pave the way for the future.

The artistic manifestation of this revolt against history is the aesthetic extremism for which the avant-garde is widely known, an extremism, taken up in many forms, that was intended explicitly to stand in marked contrast to established traditions.[11] In his 1974 Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger provides a framework to read this aesthetic strategy as a form of activism. In his largely Marxist analysis of the avant-garde, Bürger reads the art as a social system embedded within the ideological superstructures of bourgeois culture. Artistic tradition is therefore the manifestation of specific ideological values. As a result, attacking artistic tradition by undermining or overthrowing its aesthetic strategies offers to undermine those same superstructures.[12] In this political reading, the avant-garde’s resistance of traditional aesthetics, and its free synthesizing of the aesthetic means of diverse, historical artistic practices, reveals that the aesthetic means of art are developed as rational choices aimed at producing specific effects, and not by a necessary adherence of art to historical traditions of mimetic representation.[13] For Bürger, this revelation initiates a criticism of bourgeois society, undermining the legitimacy of history in art as a precursor to undermining the legitimacy of history as a structuring agent of present social organization overall. Bürger’s analysis, much richer than I here allude to, might not account for all instances of avant-garde art, but its connection of art and aesthetics to political subversion establishes a link between aesthetics, an anti-historical sensibility, and the political potential of art works. Indeed, Bürger offers an explanation of the frequently cited anti-traditional thrust of the movement, and one that connects avant-garde both to desire for revolution that is both artistic and social.

This desire, which finds itself at the center of the critical and aesthetic project of the avant-garde, also finds itself at the center of the crisis faced by that movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. It was, paradoxically, the wide-spread recognition and celebration of the avant-garde in the twentieth century came to undermine its authority—a fate shared by many schools of subversive art. In 1964, literary critic Leslie Fiedler publically declared the death of avant-garde literature because he felt the avant-garde’s oppositional stance had been coopted by the traditions and society it sought to overturn, and was thus stripped of its potency.[14] The avant-garde’s anti-traditional stance is predicated on the movement’s position at the margins of the society it opposes, its incorporation into that society and traditions undermines its project.[15] Greenberg had foreseen the end of the avant-garde in 1939, suggesting that even by the time of his definition its success, both critical and financial, was dependent on the institution of art to which it was opposed, a contradiction that would inevitably cause it to lose traction, legitimating and strengthening the historical tradition whose authority it purports to undermine.[16] Indeed, the acceptance of the avant-garde, in the twentieth century, into the broad cannon of Western art ultimately negates the historical project identified by scholars such as Bürger, stripping it of its anti-traditional ethos, and degrading the political thrust of its aesthetic strategies.[17]

If this cooption of the avant-garde by its opposition has thrown its political project into crisis, that crisis has been deepened by the simultaneous emergence of postmodernism in the second half of the twentieth century. Debates over what constitutes postmodernism notwithstanding, a particular theorizing of the this broad cultural movement reveals in greater light the crisis of the avant-garde. In The Postmodern Condition (1979), French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard proposes that postmodernism marks the end of “grand narratives” (grands récits) of history, narratives of historical understanding through which societies identify and legitimize themselves, their growth and their progress.[18] The notion of the end of such broad forms of cultural understanding connects with claims that postmodernism offers a new cultural experience that is fragmented, temporary, and frequently difficult to pin down.

Lyotard’s claim is nearly forty years old, but it raises the provocative notion that a byproduct of this disappearance of such grand narratives as forms of social understanding is the lack of an overarching concept of history as agent of social formation. In such an environment, the avant-garde’s opposition to history cannot be brought into sharp relief for its audiences. The conception of history as broad and discernible force, central to critical practice of the avant-garde, is precisely what is absent in Lyotard’s theorizing of postmodernism. Further, the notion of an anti-traditional aesthetic program holds little value if the weight of tradition and history are themselves absent, already in question, or without acknowledgment. Literary scholar Matei Calinescu suggests the “silencing” of the avant-garde by postmodernism to stem from the incongruity of its “furiously anti-traditional” posture within a cultural movement more than willing to “revisit the past.”[19] Such willingness to revisit the past is both evidence of changing conceptions of history in postmodernism, as well as its dismantling of the distinctions between cultural spheres, e.g., high-culture, mass culture, a dismantling that itself blurs the trajectory and historical thrust of artistic traditions. Indeed, if postmodernism both expands the legitimacy and strips away the historical understanding and aesthetic forms, then it leaves the avant-garde without a target for its polemic, and without a framework through which to assert it.

Secret History of the Dividing Line

The relationship between the critical practice of the avant-garde and David Gatten’s Secret History films is not immediately apparent. Indeed, Gatten identifies his artistic practice as “making moving images,” and even the scholar must infer their investment in the historical development and crisis of the avant-garde briefly outlined above. I have, of course, raised this discussion of the avant-garde in the context of Gatten’s film Secret History of the Dividing Line because I believe the film explores the continued presence and potential of the critical practice of the avant-garde, and points to an innovative manner in which its crisis might be negotiated by contemporary filmmakers or artists interested in taking up its aims.

Twenty minutes long, silent, and filmed in black-and-white, Secret History of the Dividing Line revolves around two central concerns of the avant-garde: history and aesthetics. Specifically, the film deals with two historical accounts of a particular event, and uses formal devices to manipulate those accounts and encourage particular readings of them.[21] The film opens with a short sequence of unexposed film through which a vertical tear, resembling a deep scratch, runs erratically, splitting the predominantly black screen at the middle. After several seconds of this black screen, and over the continued vertical tear, the film presents a series of dates that mark, at least those one is able to grasp, the development of civilization (predominantly Western civilization), from 15 000 BC up to the first half of the twentieth century. Most of these dates are present on screen only briefly, spanning at most only a few frames of film making it difficult to read in the single screening in which the film is usually shown. This series of dates, however, comes to include dates that deal with the settlement of Virginia, and with the life of William Byrd II. These dates are left on screen longer, and, as they progress, are increasingly focused on Byrd’s involvement in a 1728 expedition to survey the border between Virginia and North Carolina. This expedition culminated, these dates tell us, in the publication two separate accounts, both written by Byrd: his official account, titled The Official History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, and a personal account titled Secret History of the Line.[22]

Following the presentation of these dates, the film presents several sections of text from Byrd’s official account, offering a glimpse into its official and religious tone. The vertical tear, which had disappeared during the presentation of the dates pertaining to Byrd, then returns, disrupting the presentation of the text by splitting the frame in two and leaving half the screen black. The tear then disappears again, and the film gives similar treatment of Byrd’s secret history, presenting several passage that reveal the satiric tone it adopts in contrast to the official account. When the vertical tear reappears yet another time over this secret account, rather than split the image between text and empty space, it splits the image between the two historical accounts, encouraging perception of them as intertwined.

Following its manipulation of these accounts, the film enters a formal investigation of the film splice nearly ten minutes in length. A central component of editing, and indeed of filmmaking itself, the splice is the physical splitting and rejoining of film stock. The Secret History of the Dividing Line may not contain shots in the conventional sense of live-action cinema, but it does rely on splitting and rejoining celluloid stock. The vertical tear itself is a form of splice, and the film moves between dates and textual passages by means of the traditional horizontal splice. In this ten minute section, the film uses optically printed splices—the effect of which is to extend the amount of time they are on screen—to produce a flicker effect that gradually slows in tempo. These are rough, and not seamless, and they appear as bright strips in contrast to the black film stock. This contrast produces the flicker effect that is initially disorienting, but then dissipates as the splices are left on screen for increasingly longer durations, ultimately the splices are present for seven to ten seconds. After this substantial section, the film concludes reproducing cleanly, without splices or tears, text from an appendix to Byrd’s official account titled “The Distance Between Places,” which lists the distances between all the physical, environmental landmarks encountered on the expedition.

Evident in this lengthy description of Secret History of the Dividing Line is the film’s concern with both history and film aesthetics. The opening of the film, with almost a minute of sustained focus on the vertical tear, foregrounds a concern with engaging disruptive aesthetics, a concern that comes implicitly to link the film with the critical practice of the avant-garde. In the following series of dates, the film produces a teleological narrative of American history comprised of “cornerstones” of Western historical progress (e.g., as Marco Polo’s return from the Orient), which evokes the formation of the United States as the culmination of the development of Western civilization. However, the clear presentation of this narrative is frustrated through the aesthetic device of the splice as the series is edited too rapidly to grasp the bulk of dates it presents. To emphasize the direct role of editing in this presentation, the vertical tear, ultimately a vertical “splice” continues to run overtop of this presentation, splitting the physical dates from their descriptions, and implying the role of its formal presentation affecting the perception of its content.

Structuring this sequence in this way has two effects. First, by evoking a broad teleological history and undermining its clear presentation through aesthetics, the film is suggestive of the desire of the avant-garde to use aesthetics as a means of challenging the authority of history. Second, by denying a clear understanding of that narrative the film evokes a sense of its own position in a moment where such broad, overarching views of history are increasingly obscured. Read in response to these effects, the inclusion of the dates pertaining to Virginia and Byrd resonate not just as the film’s announced focus, but as an opportunity for focused historical understanding. When the dates pertaining to the settlement of Virginia are screened for a longer duration, it creates a smaller historical narrative, that of the settlement of a single state, which becomes an identifiable context in which the larger teleological narrative with which the film begins can be explored. Additionally, the dates pertaining to Byrd’s life, which are the culmination of the dates pertaining to Virginia, and which offer an exceptional level of detail, form a concrete access point through which that large narrative can be engaged and reconsidered. These dates effectively position Byrd’s involvement in the settlement of Virginia as what we can term a “microhistory.”

Historian Carlo Ginzburg traces the term “microhistory” to historian George R. Stewart who, in 1959, used it to discuss the involvement of the Confederate general George E. Pickett in the battle of Gettysburg during the American civil war.[23] For Stewart, the precise details of Pickett’s involvement in that battle reveal not only why it unfolded how it did, but also how it led to the defeat of the Confederate army and the resolution of the Civil war. Using Stewart’s reading of Pickett’s charge as an exemplar, Ginzburg articulates microhistories as smaller, localized histories that address broad or overarching historical periods, events, and narratives, but are not readily alluded to by those periods, events, or narratives.[24] Pickett’s charge offers great insight into Gettysburg and its ramifications, though narratives of Gettysburg themselves do not necessarily identify Pickett or his importance; Pickett is but a piece of history, but one that helps us understand it more clearly. Read this way, microhistories afford historians opportunities to explore such narratives through new access points, and to open them to greater clarity. Microhistory serves an additional purpose by addressing what Ginzburg calls “the acknowledgement of the limits of existence.”[25] Not only do they reveal moments in history with greater clarity, they also circumvent the potentially unmanageable scope of history, reducing the focus of our historical understanding to a degree of specificity that makes it tangible (15).

For this reduction in scale, Ginzburg places microhistory in opposition to history that is macroscopic, qualitative and linear, and in which he finds its significant contribution to historical understanding. Microhistory allows for a thorough understanding of historical phenomena, something possible only through the reconstruction of all its constituent elements.[26] Additionally, and crucial to this discussion, it addresses and offers to move beyond the fragmentation of history in postmodernism.[27] Specifically, the particularities of these localized, often personal histories can compel us to reconsider events and narratives of major historical significance.[28] Reading Secret History of the Dividing Line through Ginzburg lets us seethe life of William Byrd II and his survey expedition as a microhistory that intersects the larger historical narrative initially offered by the film, that which culminates with a teleological reading of the formation of the United States.[29] As such, though Byrd is not a paramount figure in the history or mythos of the United States, his localized history can push us to reconsider that overarching narrative.

            It is significant in this context of microhistory that the film shifts focus from history, the broad preoccupation of the avant-garde, to historiography, the writing of history, and a specific manner of engaging historical events. Indeed, Byrd’s historical accounts of the settlement of the border between Virginia and North Carolina are offered by the film as the culmination of Byrd’s microhistory, and the film’s presentation and manipulation of those accounts thus becomes an historical investigation its own right. When the film presents sections of Byrd’s accounts, it does so through a formal strategy designed to undermine their historical authority. For example, the film presents several sections of Byrd’s official account, offering a sense of how the rhetoric of the official document expounds the importance of the expedition to the establishment of Virginia. When the film later shows sections from Byrd’s secret history, Byrd’s satiric prose suggests that it was personal greed and not state interests that lay behind the expedition.[30] The contradiction between these two texts can be grasped by reading them, but Secret History of the Dividing Line uses a formal strategy to remind us of its role in bringing their incongruities to light. Over the official account, the vertical tear returns, drawing attention to the tear’s manipulation of the work. During the presentation of the secret history, this vertical tear contrasts both official and secret accounts, making evident the films formal work in bringing them together in this critical manner.

In this section, the film thematizes several issues circling the avant-garde and its crisis. Having positioned Byrd’s accounts as entry points to a larger teleological history, the film foregrounds its primary aesthetic device, the disruptive vertical tear that splits the image. In doing so, it forges a connection with avant-garde aesthetics and their urge to disrupt the authority of history, a connection previously established when the same tear renders illegible the series of historical dates. In what is essentially a visual metaphor, this device literally effaces history from the screen. However, as if enacting the loss of the efficacy of aesthetics to simply undermine history in and of themselves—though of course we might now question whether such efficacy was ever truly manifest—this device is ultimately invested within the film in an investigation of historiography. Whereas the vertical tear begins by challenging a presentation of history, it is redirected in this sequence as a challenge to the authority of historical documents, moving from what risks being a potentially empty attack on a historical narrative, to what is a revealing analysis of two documents representative of that narrative. And though the vertical tear might be nothing more than a formal element of the film, it is difficult to overlook the contrasting narratives provided by Byrd’s two writings.

The presentation of these two documents, following as they do the film’s complex presentation of historical dates, cues attention back to the critical project of the avant-garde, a project in which the film now appears embedded. It suggests that the use of aesthetics to undermine history, implicit in using the tear to obscure a historical narrative or an official account, is no longer an effective technique, working only to obscure fragments of a larger history that are, as the film itself enacts, impossible to grasp. However, in demonstrating the potential of aesthetics to mediate between historical accounts, the film asserts that this challenge can be recaptured in a historiographic process through which the validity of a larger history is questioned, and its authority shown to be based in rhetoric before fact.

The discussion between history, historiography, and aesthetics so far engendered is expanded in the section following Byrd’s accounts, that which presents the formal investigation of the splice, the central aesthetic device at work in the film. As noted earlier, this section begins with numerous splices optically printed in rapid succession. The white line that appears where the black film stock has been cut and glued back together is brightly visible along with the otherwise dark frame. As the film moves through the splices it appears and disappears, the contrast of black and white producing a flicker effect that is disruptive of the type of viewing so far solicited by the film, one dependent on reading segments of text, and very nearly disorienting in its strobe effect. Appearing here, after the negotiation of historical authority through an aesthetic device, the violence of this flicker calls forth the aesthetic extremism of the avant-garde, the disruption of forms of reception that the avant-garde hoped would undermine artistic tradition. But no sooner has the section elicited this connection than it begins to slow the duration for which each splice is on screen. Gradually, the flicker is replaced by still images of the splices themselves, lasting on screen for up to ten seconds, images that reveal the splices are nothing more torn edges of film stock, smears of glue, and pockets of air bubbles.

Reducing these splices to their physical forms is anti-climatic in the wake of the flicker they initially produce, and it develops the suggestion made in earlier sections of the film that the aesthetic lacks any inherent political efficacy. Indeed, strengthened here is the film’s additional suggestion that it is only the embedding of formal techniques within a specific context that gives them such efficacy, as well as the power to work against massive forces such as history and tradition. Of course, the avant-garde was aware that it was inserting its aesthetic extremism into the context of artistic tradition, a context in which it hoped that extremism would be shocking, disruptive, and subversive. The film, however, openly acknowledges that its aesthetic manipulations or decisions have little impact on their own, and that it is the historical investigation into which they are inserted that affords them their opportunity for subversion. The use of the vertical tear to obscure Byrd’s official account is just that, an obscuring of historical document; it forces no inherent social change, nor should it. However, when the tear is used to contrast Byrd’s official and unofficial accounts, the film uses this aesthetic device in a practice of historical negotiation that is akin to the historical negation sought by the avant-garde. There is an acknowledgment here that faced with changing understandings of history, and with the degrading political impact of radical aesthetics, aesthetics now need to be engaged within conceptual frameworks, such as historiography or microhistory, if they are to address successfully the anti-historical stance praised by the avant-garde during its flourishing.

The rejection of history and tradition by the avant-garde was done in hopes of creating an idealized future. This broadly-shaped directive is not adopted by Secret History of the Dividing Line, its negotiation of historical understanding and film aesthetics is more subtle and nuanced. However, the final section of the film draws attention to its contribution to historical understanding by presenting the text of “The Distance Between Places.” This section reveals to us the scope of the contribution of Byrd’s account of the survey expedition, presenting the measurements he took in mapping the border of that state, and thus reminding us that the expedition contributed to the official establishment Virginia’s borders and geography. With its focus on the measurable contribution of Byrd’s account, this section also reminds us that historiography, though potentially fraught with contradiction and biases, seeks to produce an understanding of the world. As a result, the film’s own investment in historiography, its examination of two historical accounts, is itself exposed as a process of understanding. It is invested in a historical project that can prove as useful to understanding narratives of national settlement and identity, narratives that can be as broad as the overarching narrative for which Byrd is offered as a microhistory. Yet, here focus is not on physical or definitive understanding, as is this final section of Byrd’s account, but rather on an understanding of the contradictions and biases of history.

Secret History of the Dividing Line enacts the crisis faced by the avant-garde, as well as one means of developing and pursuing its critical ethos. In its formal manipulation of a historical narrative, it evokes the desire of the avant-garde to resist the authority of history, and to do so through aesthetic strategies. Yet, in its effacing of a “macro history” in favor of both microhistory and historiography, the film acknowledges that fragmentation and shifting perceptions of history might render such grand gestures ineffectual. Ultimately, the film thematizes the context of its own aesthetic program, demonstrating that a shift in focus and application might be seen to afford that program an opportunity for the kind of subversion embraced by the avant-garde. In doing so, it integrates that particular impulse of the avant-garde into a new framework. And, by tackling the crisis of the historical avant-garde, and by reworking its impulse into a new, applicable context, the film dramatizes that the impulse to continue to hold weight, and that it can be extended into current artistic practice.   

Extensions of the avant-garde

To suggest that Secret History of the Dividing Line offers a means to extend the impulses of the historical avant-garde into contemporary artistic production raises additional questions, some common to many experiences of avant-garde (and experimental) cinema, others more specific. Though I have set aside issues of filmmaker David Gatten’s intentions, my reading of the film, and my inference of its connection to this historical movement, pushes us to consider what value its interrogation of the crisis, and continued influence, of the avant-garde’s anti-historical thrust. We might ask further whether this interrogation is a necessary outcome of the film, or its critical reception? And to what extent it is manifest in the film’s reception?

Such questions, particularly the latter, require different forms of research and are difficult to answer. Still, they point to the different cultural operations in which the film is invested, and why its engagement with the avant-garde can be read as fruitful and valuable with a range of contexts. When Scott MacDonald suggests that the films of Gatten’s Secret History series reflect on a century of avant-garde film production, his provocative comment that leads us to read elements of that series, such as the formal organization of Secret History of the Dividing Line in the grander context of avant-garde cinema, both in North America and abroad. Indeed, the formal organization of this film creates intertextual allusions to a range of avant-garde films and filmmaking techniques, implicitly positioning the film in a network of filmmaking practices. The flicker effect caused by the optical printing of the splices in the film’s fourth section, for example, is explicitly reminiscent of many structural films of the 1960s, such as The Flicker (Tony Conrad, 1965) or Ray Gun Virus (Paul Sharits, 1966). Likewise, the formal investigation of historical works evokes a range of avant-garde films such as Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (Ken Jacobs, 1969) or Marilyn Times Five (Bruce Connor, 1973). Some other connections formed by the film are latent, discernible only through reading about the film or listening to the filmmaker, but these connections are evident to most audiences who are aware of the history of avant-garde film.[31]

The intertextual connections thus come to invest this film in the broad history of avant-garde cinema, with its different, occasionally conflicting schools, and its lingering connection to the historical avant-garde, a connection that is both terminological and connected to the avant-garde’s aesthetic and political interests. MacDonald makes the implicit suggestion that Gatten’s Secret History series as about locating himself within a community, and a history, of avant-garde filmmakers. In doing so, he opens our consideration further to reading in these films an investigation of an artistic practice that shares impulses and concerns with the historical avant-garde itself, and does so in a more direct way than the broad tenets of avant-garde filmmaking I offered earlier. Ultimately, scholars must infer the degree to which Secret History of the Dividing Line negotiates the avant-garde and its crisis. Through such inference, however, the film’s historical inquiry becomes not only a “process of historical research,” as MacDonald suggests Gatten sees his own films, but also an investigation of the changing position of avant-garde filmmakers and artists at the outset of the twenty-first century.[32] Indeed, the film explores how as the overarching concepts through which the historical avant-garde defined itself are increasingly stripped away, the task of the avant-garde artist changes, and the types of intervention they undertake begin to shift.

Secret History of the Dividing Line showcases above all its historical intervention. It dramatizes its formal interference in a historical narrative as a means of reading history critically, and of reflecting on broad narratives of national identity as contradictory, biased, opaque, and misleading. This critical position is not new, but Secret History of the Dividing Line is not simplistic or repetitive of existing criticism or approaches. Rather, it feels innovative, exciting, organic, and compelling. It is here, in that experience, that I find its engagement of the avant-garde to be fruitful. The form of criticism it employs extends back through the historical avant-garde, has been negotiated and contested for decades, and has been argued by numerous theorists as now void. Still, within the proliferation of films and filmmakers identified as avant-garde, some continue to embrace its critical ethos.

Responding to the “death” of the avant-garde, Matei Calinescu claims that the continued ability of artists to identify and engage social crises produces a continued existence of the avant-garde as a form of social criticism.[33] His comment elides the historical specificity of the avant-garde, but reminds us of its continued influence. Indeed, numerous avant-garde filmmakers continue to speak to its ethos, albeit often in broad terms, despite its apparent ineffectiveness. Secret History of the Dividing Line offers a mediation between these difficult positions. It engages with the project of the historical avant-garde to reconfigure it, and to find its own avenue on which to pursue it. In doing so, the film points to the continued impulse of that project, but exposes new forms it can take, and highlights the active exploration by artists of techniques beyond the focus of the historical movement. Ultimately, this film speaks to us as scholars, filmmakers, and audiences interested or invested in the continued potential of avant-garde art. Indeed, the film both confirms the crisis of the historical avant-garde for us, as well as pushes past it, drawing attention to new avenues for those interested in an artistic practice that has already passed them by.


1. To summarize with one term the entire scope of avant-garde, experimental, and underground film in North America is problematic. However, my intentions here are not to lump together the distinct intentions and products of the numerous filmmakers working in these fields. Rather, I wish to suggest the presence of an overarching avant-garde cinema surrounding these works—a statement in agreement with many historians of avant-garde film (Sheldon Renan (1967), P. Adams Sitney (1972, 2002), A.L Rees (1999), etc.)—and to locate within that cinema several concerns that intersect those of the historical avant-garde. I am also here identifying North American avant-garde cinema, responding to the distinction between it and European avant-garde cinema made by Peter Wollen in “The Avant-Gardes: Europe and America.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 14 (1981): 9-10. I want to treat the continuing accuracy of that distinction carefully, however, for it is itself historical, and unable to account for changes and exchanges in avant-garde filmmaking practices around the globe in the last thirty years. [return to text]

2. Scott McDonald, “Gentle Iconoclast: An Interview with David Gatten.” Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007): 37.

3.  See McDonald 36.

4. The use of “Secret History” here most likely connects Byrd’s work to another secret history, the Anecdota by Procopius. A historian, Procopius wrote works championing the Roman emperor Justinian. However, centuries after his death, historians discovered an additional writing, the Anecdota, which offered a damning portrayal of the emperor. In its early publications, this revisionist history was called The Secret History. See Daniel Mendelsohn, “God’s Librarians.” The New Yorker,January 3, 2011, accessed June 12, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/01/03/gods-librarians

5. Richard Schechner. “The Five Avant-Gardes or…or None?” The Twentieth-Century Performance Reader. Ed. Michael Huxley and Noel Witt. (New York: Routledge, 1996) 310.

6. Paul Mann. The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 8.

7. Though this notion is explored by several historians of the avant-garde, I am drawing here on Matei Calinescu’s lengthy history of the movement in Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987) 95-150.

8. Huyssen, Andreas. “The Hidden Dialectic: The Avantgarde – Technology – Mass
Culture.” [1980] After the Great Divide. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986) 4. Cf. Calinescu 102.

9. The influence of anarchism on the avant-garde is discussed by Huyssen, who downplays the influence of Marxism on the movement, an influence more fully stressed by Calinescu (104-105 & 125-132).

10. Clement Greenberg. “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch” [1939]. Horizon: A Review of Literature and Art. April 1940. 256. Accessed June 12, 2015, http://www.unz.org/Pub/Horizon-1940apr-00255

11. Calinescu 117.

12. This is a simplification of Bürger’s argument in which it is important to note that a negation of the subsystem art does not equal a negation of bourgeois culture or ideology. However, as the subsystem of art is part of a larger social formation, its criticism works to enable a much larger self-criticism of bourgeois society. See Peter Bürger. Theory of the Avant-Garde [1974]. Trans. Michael Shaw. (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984) 20-27.

13. Bürger 17-20.

14. Leslie Fiedler. “The Death of Avant-Garde Literature” [1964]. The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. Vol. 2. (New York: Stein and Day, 1971) 454.

15. Cf. Mann 12-13.

16.  Greenberg 260-61.

17. The undermining of the avant-garde by its paradoxical inclusion in the society and traditions it sought to overturn is the subject of numerous historical accounts. A succinct account of its dissipation of the avant-garde into numerous neo-avant-garde movements in performance is offered by Schechner. A more theoretical account of the death of the avant-garde, and the critical value of that death, is offered in Mann’s book-length study. For a broad account of the avant-garde’s formations and theoretical doctrine, readers can also turn to Renato Poggioli’s seminal The Theory of the Avant-Garde [1962]. Trans. Gerald Fitzgerald. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1968).

18. I realize that the notion of grand narratives, or metanarratives as they identified in translations of Lyotard’s work, are complex social mechanisms, our responses to which forming part of Lyotard’s theorizing of postmodernism. See, for example, Jean-Francois Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [1979]. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984) 12. I am setting aside here Lyotard’s complex formation of this concept, and issues raised with the concept following its introduction, in favor of the suggestive reading of a cultural moment the concept offers, particularly with respect to our thinking about the continued efficacy of the avant-garde.

19. Calinescu 276.

20. For example, see David Gatten’s description of his work on his website, accessed June 12, 2015, http://www.davidgattenfilm.com

21. The various filmmaking techniques used by Gatten are discussed in detail in his interview with Scott MacDonald.

22. Secret History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina was not actually published until 1841, when it was released in a collection of Byrd’s writings. Secret History of the Line did not see publication until 1929 when the North Carolina Historical Commission reprinted Byrd’s official account.

23. Carlo Ginzburg. “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It.” Critical Inquiry 20.1 (1993): 10-12.

24. Ginzburg 12.

25. Ginzburg 15.

26. Ginzburg 24.

27. Ginzburg 32.

28. Ginzburg 33.

29. As the “Secret History” films progress, the microhistory of William Byrd is connected to other important components of American life, including the the Library of Congress, which may owe to the library established by Byrd, and thus the dissemination of knowledge in the New World.

30. Though difficult to discern in the film, in his interview with MacDonald, Gatten identifies the specific motivations revealed in each of these documents. The official document celebrates efficient tax collection and state administration while the unofficial version reveals the motivations to be the circumvention of trade tariffs. See MacDonald 40.

31. MacDonald discusses how Gatten uses of a mathematical formula to structure the optical printing of the splices, a further reference to structural film and other rigorously structured avant-garde cinema. It is unlikely, however, that one can discern the formula during view without prior knowledge of its existence. See MacDonald 37.

32. MacDonald 36.

33. Calinescu 124.

Works cited

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Byrd, William II. Secret History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North  Carolina. [1841] Raleigh, NC: N.C. Historical Commision, 1929.

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Connor, Bruce. Marilyn Times Five. Film. 1973.

Conrad, Tony. The Flicker. Film. 1965.

Fiedler, Leslie. “The Death of Avant-Garde Literature.” The Collected Essays of Leslie  Fiedler. Vol. 2. New York: Stein and Day, 1971. 454-61.

Gatten, David. Secret History of the Dividing Line. Film. 2002.

Gatten, David. David Gatten Film. Website. http://www.davidgattenfilm.com/.

Ginzburg, Carlo. “Microhistory: Two or Three Things I Know About It.” Critical Inquiry  20.1 (1993): 10-35.

Greenberg, Clement. “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch” [1939]. Horizon: A Review of  Literature and Art. April 1940. 255-273.

Huyssen, Andreas. “The Hidden Dialectic: The Avantgarde – Technology – Mass  Culture.” [1980] After the Great Divide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 3-15.

Jacobs, Ken. Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. Film. 1969.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. [1979] Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Mann, Paul. The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde. Bloomington: Indiana University  Press, 1991.

MacDonald, Scott. “Gentle Iconoclast: An Interview with David Gatten.” Film Quarterly  61.2 (2007): 36-44.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. “God’s Librarians.” The New Yorker,January 3, 2011.

Rees, A.L. A History of Experimental Film and Video. Second Edition. London: BFI,  2011.

Renan, Sheldon. An Introduction to the American Underground Film. New York: E.P.  Dutton & Co., 1967.

Schechner, Richard. “The Five Avant-Gardes or…or None?” The Twentieth-Century  Performance Reader. Ed. Michael Huxley and Noel Witt. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Sharits, Paul. Ray Gun Virus. Film. 1965.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000. Third Edition.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg,  July 3, 1863. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959.

Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. [1962] Trans. Gerald Fitzgerald.  Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968.

Wollen, Peter. “The Avant-Gardes: Europe and America.” Framework: The Journal of  Cinema and Media 14 (1981): 9-10.